Sanctions and allowances
Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows the heartless, punitive nature of the modern welfare system
As the title credits of I, Daniel Blake go by – sober white lettering over a black screen – we listen to a conversation between a man and a woman. No, not a conversation: that implies a real exchange. This is an appraisal. Mr Blake has applied for Employment and Support Allowance, a payment administered by the British government on behalf of people whose illness or disability prevents them from working. But one can’t have shirkers milking the system, hence the Work Capability Assessment, conducted by a health care professional, to determine whether or not the applicant really is unwell. Can you raise either arm level with your chest? Can you walk unaided for 50 metres? His arms and legs work fine, says Mr Blake. “It’s me fuckin’ heart.”
Daniel Blake – Mr Blake to the state, Dan to his friends – finds himself trapped in an unfeasible situation. Because he has recently had a heart attack, his doctors tell him that he can’t work. But the state decides that he is capable of work, and therefore he must work, if not at a paid job then at the full-time task of looking for a job. He is a joiner by trade, and a manual worker in late middle age is no one’s idea of a valuable asset, so the jobs he must apply for are likely to be non-existent.
Ken Loach, the director of I, Daniel Blake, is 80 years old, and came out of retirement in order to craft this cri de coeur against the heartlessness of Britain’s contemporary welfare system, which is driven by an ideological obsession with austerity. The aim is to pay as few people as little money as possible, and to make those who do receive payments feel ashamed of the crumbs they are receiving. Dan is not entitled to Employment and Support Allowance, only to Job Seeker’s Allowance, which is paid at the princely rate of about A$120 per week. If Dan doesn’t work at looking for work while living on this money he will be sanctioned, which means punished, only punished would imply a body that receives the punishment, while sanctioned has the crisp, clean ring of something distant enough to be beyond concern. A human being is fallible: gets sick, gets angry, gets depressed. But the ideal welfare client is a machine, untroubled by weaknesses.
Dan is a short, balding, fifty-something man. He lives alone in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (where the film was shot), in a council flat. He likes to carve wooden fish, which he hangs in mobiles, and late at night he listens to the shipping forecast. His partner is dead, and his young neighbour, China (Kema Sikazwe), tends to get on his nerves. Newcastle-born stand-up comedian Dave Johns plays this largely non-comedic part with understated warmth. Loach has spent a career making films about people like Dan: kind-hearted, brave-hearted, stubborn and proud people. This can make his films feel like fables, though his commitment to finding goodness in bad circumstances has a real-world motivation: he wants to set this possibility against the self-justifying belief that we are all selfish, and that self-interestedness is therefore the best way to organise society.
Dan befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother with two children, when they are both thrown out of the Job Centre, Katie for being late to her appointment, Dan for defending her. Now they will struggle together, if not in exactly the same way. The film pays useful attention to the impact of gender on poverty – Katie struggles to afford sanitary pads, for instance – though Katie’s downhill slide is, in the end, predictable. Her story exists as a counterpoint to Dan’s, rather than being a convincing thing in its own right, and this weakness in scripting is a recurring flaw in Loach’s late work. Screenwriter Paul Laverty, with whom Loach has worked frequently since My Name is Joe (1998), is simply not as skilled as some of Loach’s previous collaborators, who have included the novelist Barry Hines (Kes, 1969), and the playwright Rona Munro (Ladybird, Ladybird, 1994). Some of the dialogue here is too expository, the plot arcs too schematic.
Still, Katie is at the centre of the film’s most affecting scene, set at a food bank. Food banks have become common in Britain over the past half-dozen years, as sanctioned job-seekers with nowhere left to go are forced to rely on charity. The fact of being hungry becomes shameful, and the shame is borne by those who are hungry, rather than by a government which has made them so. “You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of,” counsels Dan to Katie, and he’s right, but the both of them are poor, and to be poor is enough of a crime.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.