When Ken Loach’s films work, they really work: I’ve met the man in real life and he is impressively self-effacing, putting ordinary people and their stories at the centre of his films. And having been on the dole myself in the ’80’s I totally got ‘I, Daniel Blake’.
In the 1980’s things were both better and worse. They were worse in the sense that unemployment was much higher (zero-hours contracts notwithstanding) and that was especially true where I’d ended up. In the North West there literally were no jobs, especially not for a shellshocked teacher who absolutely refused to go back to the chalk face. I guess I could have gone on sickness benefit, but I resisted the medicalisation of my mental illness and decided to face it out without the dubious help of anti-depressants: I still maintain this was the right approach for me. But I know in my soul the grinding despair of unemployment: the feeling that you are judged by others; the impossibility of finding work no matter how you try, and the never-ending financial hardship. Matthew Parris, then a Minister in the Thatcher government, did a TV programme where he ‘tried’ living on unemployment benefit for a week: he planned to save £3 and ended up sitting in the dark with no heating.
But I was lucky: I had a family who could help, and in the end (though very reluctantly) I returned home for a while and eventually found work.
Daniel Blake is not so lucky: he has to stop work as a carpenter when he suffers a heart attack. His doctor signs him off but when he tries to claim ESA (sickness benefit) his claim is refused.
‘I, Daniel Blake’ is the story of one man’s attempt to navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy and human indifference and retain his self-respect. After he is defeated at every turn and ejected from the Job Centre (or whatever they’re called this week) he gets a spray-can and writes his testimony to the world on the wall:
This is his attempt at finding a voice in the midst of defeat and degradation.
I won’t spoil the ending for you but go and watch the film.
And in case you think it’s mere left-wing propaganda, here are a selection of ESA stories from the media:
In the interests of fairness, I tried to find some positive stories. Here’s what I found:
There’s to be a lot of anecdotal evidence that what happened to Daniel happens to many people and that claims are routinely refused. Whistle-blowers in the ‘service’ talk of a culture of trying to put claimants off so as to save money. Of course, these services are now privately managed, meaning that there is a need to generate profit.
Words fail me: I just feel desperately sorry for people caught in this situation because I could so easily be there too.
If you’re in this situation and need help, don’t despair. Help is available here: