Sorry We Missed You
December 8, 2019
Ken Loach has a gift of cutting through the statistics and hitting you in the heart. This Wednesday he invited me along to the Newcastle premiere of his latest film, Sorry We Missed You.
Without giving any spoilers, Abby works as a carer, Ricky as a “self employed” delivery driver under unremitting pressure to hit targets, or face fines. Kids Seb and Lisa-Jane are caught in the middle, their parents too busy or too knackered to give them the attention and nurture they need. The tragedy of parents working till they drop, hoping to save enough money to buy their own home and escape the poverty trap of sky-high rents. It rings true.
I worked with Ken on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, showing Spirit of 45, his film about the 1945 Labour government that literally rebuilt Britain from the rubble, created the NHS, built millions of homes, introduced the welfare state and provided a safety net, so no-one would ever have to go back to the crippling poverty of the 1930’s.
Yet in the era of smartphones and Netflix, Britain has 1.6 million people using foodbanks, 14 million people in poverty, 250,000 children in temporary accommodation. Numbers too high to comprehend – so high they make us numb. Ken tells the human stories. Daniel Blake, a hard working joiner who’s suffered a heart attack, forced back to work by a welfare system intent on punishing people instead of helping them. “They’re using hunger as a weapon,” Ken told me, “to force people into insecure work, where they have no power, against the threat of starvation.”
The stories are true. United Nations Rapporteur Philip Alston describes a “social calamity” with “people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future.” By this measure, austerity Britain is a failed state.
Once the anger of injustice cools, we’re left asking: what has gone wrong? Amidst all the technology and innovation, in our city, in 2019, kids in school uniform poverty are going to school in slippers, a true case I heard just this weekend.
One in four of the North of Tyne workforce earn less than the Real Living Wage – the amount you need to live on without sinking into debt. We’re trying to change that, with the North of Tyne Good Work pledge – where companies sign up to pay decent wages, have fair employment practices, allow trade union recognition, in work progression, flexible working and mental health support for staff. I want to make it so that anyone getting public sector contracts has to provide Good Work. This creates an environment in which real small businesses can thrive.
On Thursday, Ken was on Question Time in South Shields. The usual arguments were rehearsed again. We voted Leave (just). We were lied to about what Brexit means. All true, but what matters is the effect on people’s lives.
Ken cut through again – “We have precarious working now, in the EU, and we’ll have it again even worse if Johnson’s the Prime Minister.”
That’s what’s been lost in the Leave-Remain argument. The millions of people who’ve been left behind are being left behind again.
We need radical change, but Brexit is not the place to look.
When a billion pound property portfolio of London office blocks rises in value, the economic figures look good. But what good are rising property values to people working in the gig economy? Trickle down is a myth – wealth trickles up through interest payments and rent. How about we measure wellbeing instead of GDP? Let’s change our objectives.
Are our kids happy? Do we have good mental health? Are we living sustainably? Have we ended homelessness? And do our people have enough to eat without having to sell sex?
This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 28th October 2019