Corbyn's Labour for the good of the collective

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The Labour Party’s strong performance under Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom general elections may have reintroduced the ‘spirit of 45’ to the mainstream.

Jeremy Corbyn's long-standing efforts to make the interests of 'the many' the central focus over those of 'the few' have resounded among British voters. | Flickr / thierry ehrmann

The Labour Party has given its strongest performance in over a decade in the just-concluded snap polls — its vote-share touching the 40% mark for the first time since 2001.

Data: UK Political Info

Its success was premised on an unabashedly socialist manifesto, one called a ‘suicide note’ by a section of the media when its first version was leaked. Though it is not going to form government, the popularity of its leader Jeremy Corbyn among the young proves that it is acceptable to envision a future system that “works for the many, not the few”. At this moment of hope and idealism, two films — one a documentary, one a feature — provide a good understanding of the rise and fall of the British welfare state. Both were made by British director Ken Loach, who has been called “the keeper of flame for social realist cinema” by Sight and Sound’s Trevor Johnston. Loach had also produced a Labour Party election broadcast earlier in the year.

It would have been easy to dismiss the party’s manifesto as the fantasy of an old-school Leftist. Nationalisation of water industry, railways, power, Royal Mail; free childcare and early-years support; ending the freeze on welfare benefits; abolition of tuition fees; construction of at least 1,00,000 housing and association homes — these promises formed the part of the Corbyn-led party’s vision to help the bottom rung of British society, which had been disfranchised under successive Labour and Tory governments. Were the promises as impossible to achieve as the political Right believes?

Let's take a peek back into Britain’s post-War history. Unlike what happened in the U.S., public sector performance was integral to the UK’s recovery and growth in the wake of the Second World War. This reminder is provided by Loach’s The Spirit of 45.

 

Released in 2013, when austerity policies were causing misery and unemployment in the country, the film is about the empowerment of the British working class after it gave a landslide victory to Clement Atlee–led Labour Party in 1945. Labour’s performance — of 393 seats and 47.7% of the vote share — caused a historic swing of 12% from Winston Churchill’s Conservatives, a turnaround the party would come close to repeating in 2017.

Atlee and members of his administration, including his radical Housing and Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan, make brief appearances through archival footage in the documentary. However, its prime protagonists are the common people — the miners, the stewards, the health workers, the steel industry workers, the train drivers — who were enabled to take control over their present and future and live decent, middle-class lifestyles thanks to the policies initiated by the government. The National Health Service, instituted in 1948, was spearheaded by Bevan and stands as a model public health provider.

Labour, in its post-War manifesto, had proclaimed itself to be a socialist party whose ultimate purpose was the establishment of the “Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain”, whose material resources would be organised “in the service of the British people”. As the economy grew at a healthy rate of 2.5-3% in the next two decades and unemployment remained low at 2%, average wages showed an increase of about 40%. Real GDP rose by over 50% between 1955 and 1970, bringing widespread prosperity. The Labour manifesto of 2017 reads like a refreshing throwback to that of 1945.

Labour’s 1945 performance in terms of seats — 393 seats — was surpassed by the Conservatives in 1983, when Margaret Thatcher was re-elected. Her policies brought an end to the concept of collective welfare, the focus of the second part of Loach’s documentary. A welfarist state with a Keynesian economic orientation gave way to free-market economy — the interests of the individual, rather than the collective, were given more importance, and industries were successively privatised.

Unemployment, which was 5.3% in 1976 rose up to 11.9% in 1984.

 

The manufacturing sector bore the brunt of the privatisation spree, its contribution to the GDP falling.

 

Poverty, at 13.4% in 1979, rose up to 22.2% in 1990.

 

Interestingly, as said in the documentary, the agents who dismantled the welfare state in the ‘70s and ‘80s were the ones who grew up and benefited from it.

Thatcherism would continue to cause widening income inequality in the following decades, whose impact would be felt most by the working-class individuals. One such individual is the central character of Loach’s much-celebrated film I, Daniel Blake.

 

Newcastle, a city in northeast England that was once a mining hub — and was among the participants at the historic miners’ strike in 1984-85 — is where Loach sets his film. It won Palme d’Or at Cannes in May 2016, just a month before U.K. voted to leave the European Union (EU).

Daniel Blake, a carpenter in his late 50s, has just had a heart attack and is in need of state support — not charity but the Employment and Support Allowance he is entitled to. He has never reneged on his dues, nor has he shirked his responsibility to society. However, when he needs that little crutch to hold him up while he recuperates, the state stonewalls his requests, getting him trapped in a bureaucratic maze so tangled he’ll get eaten up by it.

We see the effects of cuts in public spending at both ends. The vetting of Blake, and others like him, has been outsourced to alien agencies that are only interested in robotically processing the ‘yes’s and ‘no’s that succeed each question, without paying any attention to the emotion underlying the responses. Many of the queries, put forth by untrained workers, are irrelevant to his condition. This shows that both real and disguised unemployment rates are high. Globalisation has made cheaper Chinese goods arrive but the working class can’t afford it. The old, unemployed, computer-illiterate ones like Daniel Blake are to be made to bear the burden of this inequality.

 

I, Daniel Blake is about an individual living in uncertainty and anomie between two heart attacks. He wants temporary support from the state, so that he can become fit enough to get back to work. For him, loss of self-esteem while being rebuked by welfare agents is stinging, a humiliation worse than loss of life. It may be tempting to assume that deprivation would have turned Blake turn into a cynic or, worse, someone who is anti-immigrant, seeing a threat in jobs moving offshore or from increased migration.

But he proves to be just the opposite. State indifference is not able to deprive him of empathy — he gives all possible assistance to his black neighbour. He is able to care for Katie Morgan, an unemployed single mother, another person at the receiving end of state apathy. His compassionate self provides moments of happiness to not just the lady but also her two children, who face an uncertain future. As he mentions in his last note, “I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can”. Destitution doesn't make him see a threat of the ‘other’; it doesn't make him hate foreigners; neither does it turn him into a pessimist. His sense of humour heightens and he magnanimously helps his friends.

Labour’s strong performance in 2017 is an important development to the unemployed, working-class old people, like the character of Daniel Blake as well as the unemployed youth like Katie Morgan. Just like Bernie Sanders’ fight did in the U.S. last year, Corbyn’s pronouncements have mainstreamed the idea of socialism, forcing the mainstream media as well as the international community to acknowledge it as a real possibility. As the Jacobin magazine says, Labour’s success provides a “blueprint” for future democratic socialists. It encourages the people to take back control of their lives. It has brought back the “spirit of 45” into the minds of the young in the U.K. As a song in Loach’s documentary goes, “they can’t black out the Moon”.

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