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Ken Loach: “We’re unstoppable”

26 Mar

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At this year’s Berlinale, British director Ken Loach was honoured with a lifetime achievement award for 50 years of cinema. The filmmaker and veteran political activist hasn’t lost his faith in the power of workers to bring about change. While in Berlin he spoke about the party he co-founded in 2013, Left Unity.

“The working class still exists,” presses Ken Loach before a crowd of Berlin activists – and watching Loach’s films won’t convince you of the contrary. Famously, Ken Loach doesn’t make films about action heroes or financial wizards. He focuses on the people who have to do the clean-up after a thrilling chase scene, or who get duped by greedy bankers.

The everyday struggles of the working class have provided material for a half-century of films, from the 1966 BBC homelessness docudrama Cathy Come Home; to 1985’s Berlinale Forum selection Which Side Are You On?, about the UK miners’ strike; to 2001’s The Navigators, about railway workers oppressed by management.

It might no longer be in fashion to make explicitly political art in the style of leftist provocateurs like Bertolt Brecht or John Heartfield, but Loach is somehow keeping the tradition alive. Does he see his art as a form of agitation to bring people out onto the streets? “That might be a byproduct, but that’s certainly not the function,” he says. His engagement has never been confined to the screen as exemplified by a lifetime of political activism, from Trotskyism to Labour to a brand new party: Left Unity.

On the same day Loach received his Berlinale honours, he gave a talk titled “The Crisis in Europe and the New Formation of the Radical Left” at Berlin’s Haus der Demokratie. At 10am on a Friday, the organisers expected about 20 attendees; instead, Loach spoke to a packed-to-the-rafters crowd of 150.

With his small frame and thick glasses, Loach has the friendly, unassuming manner of a bookkeeper. The man might not speak like a firebrand, but after nearly five decades of battles he still believes in the possibility of a fairer, better system, and people believe in him.

“We have power. And, my God, we need to get organised.” That’s the leitmotif of his career-long struggle: faith in the working class, despite the disappointments and setbacks. Sometimes the worst enemy might not be conservative forces but the constant infighting.

His political engagement started in 1964. By that point a television director, Loach, who had studied law at Oxford but not forgotten his working-class upbringing, became upset by the lack of working people’s voices in the media.

He joined the Labour Party and, a few years later, came into the orbit of a Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Labour League (SLL). The SLL wanted to replace the police with a workers’ militia, among other radical policies, but nonetheless formed a current within Labour, attracting several famous faces: actors Corin and Vanessa Redgrave were in the Central Committee, and John Lennon is reported to have made donations. Loach was one of a number of TV directors who worked closely with the organisation. Now, he says he was “a member” before correcting himself. “I was close to the SLL.”

Looking back, Loach sees a project paralysed by sectarianism. “Each little group had their own newspaper, and your biggest competitor was the man selling the newspaper next to you.”

The fierce infighting even affected Loach’s personal life. “A good friend of mine named Paul Foot was in the International Socialists, another Trotskyist organisation. We lived quite near each other and we both had small children. We used to meet and the children would play football. I got a call one day and it was the General Secretary of the SLL. He said: ‘What’s this I hear? Your children are playing football with the enemy?’ I said I was sorry and we stopped playing football. It was nearly 30 years before I was on a platform with Paul Foot. And we agreed about everything.”

When the SLL ditched the Labour Party and gradually drifted towards supporting Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Loach stuck with Labour – for which he was branded a traitor by his former comrades. He remained a member for 30 years, but lived through two “critical moments” that showed this organisation didn’t have much to offer working people.

“First was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, when the post-war settlement of the welfare state came under attack,” he recalls. Mines and factories closed – three million people lost their jobs overnight. Loach witnessed how the trade union leaders held back every struggle in the name of negotiations that went nowhere. “The second was in 1985 with the huge strike of the miners.” Here too, the trade unions and the Labour Party boycotted the struggle. “And we lost,” Loach recalled. He resigned from the party in the mid-1990s.

As Labour governments got involved in privatising health and education and carrying out unpopular wars abroad, Loach lost faith in the existing parties and started looking for an alternative for the real left… only to find a panoply of smaller organisations, many working at cross purposes.

Loach is convinced that during the Iraq War, when up to two million people marched in London against the Blair government, they missed a historic opportunity to build up a mass party on the left: “If only we had had a table every hundred metres that said ‘sign here’…”. The Socialist Alliance and the RESPECT coalition had already given it a try. But, like the rest before them, they had fallen victim to bitter infighting. “So now we’re trying a third time.”

In March of last year, Loach launched a call to action. His documentary The Spirit of ’45, about the sweeping social changes in Britain after the Second World War, had just premiered at the 2013 Berlinale. Inspired by his protagonists, who “transformed the lives of ordinary people”, Loach appealed for a new, unified party of the left. Ten thousand people signed his online petition, and in November, the party Left Unity was formed at a meeting of 400 in London. Loach claims the party now has over 1400 members – and, already, plenty of disagreements.

“There is a large number of individual campaigns,” Loach explains, but his aim is to unite all these activists under the umbrella of one party. “If we’re all on the same team, we’re unstoppable.” The veteran of social cinema hasn’t lost his faith in the power of the people.

“My ambition is to be a rank-and-file member,” says Loach. “Also for reasons of age.” Though the 77-year-old works more as a grey eminence than a leader in the new party, by most accounts, he has a giant influence on the debates.

But how does it feel to be a socialist at the Berlinale being driven around in giant Audis and accompanied by three bodyguards? Loach briefly seems lost for words as he turns to the young man standing next to him with a suit and an earpiece. “We’re friends!” he says, and they both smile.

Originally published in Exberliner #125, March 2014.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/features/people/were-unstoppable/

Photo: Veronica Jonsson