After rattling off a seemingly endless list of skills acquired throughout decades of piecemeal employment, Ricky proudly proclaims to his prospective employer, “I’ve never been on the dole. I’d rather starve first”. Opening with a wry reference to I, Daniel Blake – which bagged the long-revered filmmaker his second Palme d’Or in 2016 – Ken Loach’s latest film, Sorry We Missed You, is another scathing critique of the UK establishment’s Thatcherism.
Like Daniel Blake, the unemployed ex-carpenter who was the protagonist of Loach’s previous film, former builder Ricky is a working-class fish out of water. Having lost his bearings in an increasingly de-industrialised society, he finds himself in a barren neoliberal landscape, where all regional ties and class-based institutions have been eroded. While Daniel – older, widowed and unable to work – falls victim to the Kafkaesque brutality of the UK social welfare system, Ricky and his partner Abbie – younger, healthier and with a family to feed – confront a different beast: the gig economy and the tyranny of the zero-hour contract.
Two sides of the same coin, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You capture the impossible dilemma facing poor and working-class people in the UK today: either starve in food banks, attempting to navigate the humiliations of a hostile social welfare system, or accept work at any cost, no matter how inhumane the conditions might be. What’s truly terrifying is that millions of people in the UK are compelled to do both. In fact, Paul Laverty – Loach’s long-term collaborator and screenwriter – first concocted the idea for a film dealing with the gig economy when the pair started visiting food banks as part of their research for I, Daniel Blake: “What struck us was the number of people there who were working. The working poor. People on zero hours contracts or other precarious contracts. Three in four children in poverty have a working parent”.
After losing their main source of income and their mortgage in the midst of the housing crisis, Ricky and Abbie are thrust into a relentless routine of 14-hour days, six days a week. Ricky, a heavily surveilled delivery driver for an Amazon-like corporation, is forced to urinate in a plastic bottle in order to meet his quota, while Abbie, an in-home aged caregiver, must reapply mentholated ointment under her nose as she hastens from house to house, lest one of her routinely neglected clients has soiled themselves. As a result of their ruthless schedule, the fabric of their family begins to fray. Alcoholism and exhaustion give way to domestic violence. In the end, both protagonists break down as the brutality of their existence, combined with the complete absence of social safety nets, eventuates in their psychological, physical and financial ruin.
A master of social realism, Loach avoids both spurious romanticism and propagandistic didacticism. His films present the indissoluble connection between the subjective inner turmoil of the individual and the objective political struggles of the community. Ricky and Abbie represent the lives of millions of UK workers post-GFC. Having lost everything, their only concession is the newfound “freedom” to be their own boss. This supposed win-win scenario for both worker and employer is exposed as the same old one-sided exploitative relationship. The only difference is that employers gain maximum flexibility without having to provide a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, overtime, family and medical leave, disability insurance, collective bargaining rights or any compensation for injuries or expenses accrued during a day’s work.
While there is little to be hopeful about in the film itself, Loach’s recent mainstream success has been attributed to a political turning of the tide. A long-term critic of New Labour’s “caring capitalism”, Loach became a fierce advocate of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, directing a documentary in support of his leadership campaign. The freak election of Corbyn and sudden resurgence of the Labour left no doubt kindled Loach’s hope that the appalling conditions facing the working poor in the UK might begin to be addressed. This hope was not entirely unfounded, Corbyn’s 2019 Labour Party manifesto calling for a ban on zero-hour contracts. Speaking in October, at the Cannes premiere of his latest film, Loach said “The only bright spark on the horizon in the last few years in Britain is that we’ve had a left leadership in the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell ... and they promise to cut back the power of capital”.
For those watching Sorry We Missed You in Australia in 2020, that “bright spark” has been extinguished. The politically charged play on words in the film’s title – no doubt originally intended as a reference to the decades of neglect suffered by working-class people under successive Tory and New Labour governments – now carries with it the added pang of an apology for Corbyn’s complete failure to turn things around.
Notwithstanding Loach’s admiration for the left wing leader, his latest film is a brilliant analysis of the factors that ultimately led to Corbyn’s defeat. For decades, the Labour Party took much of the north, the Midlands and Wales as its birthright. However, as mines in these constituencies gave way to warehouses, steel mills to call centres and manufacturers to care work, with them went the culture of Labourism: the Bolshie shop stewards, the self-organised communities and the local papers. Bullying bosses, zero-hour contracts and poverty pay became the new norm. Meanwhile, New Labour’s neoliberal think-tankers found safe seats, cushy careers and holiday homes for themselves. Set amidst the ruins of the class-based institutions that once provided the Labour Party with an organic base, Sorry We Missed You depicts the horrific consequences of neoliberal capitalism’s success: the total decimation of working-class consciousness.
The only way to re-establish working-class consciousness in the UK is to rebuild these institutions from the ground up. That means inciting the self-employed poor to exercise their working-class power. If I have one criticism of Loach’s film, it’s that he offers no inkling of this as a future possibility. While there is ample opportunity in the film to rekindle the embers of class struggle, the only reference to workers’ solidarity is a throwback to the 1984 miners’ strike, in which one of Abbie’s aged clients played a part. In what is meant to be a particularly poignant scene, she confronts Abbie with the question, “Whatever happened to the eight-hour day?”
Yet, at the same time the film was being made, thousands of Amazon workers across the US, the UK and Europe, led by Somali immigrants in the Minneapolis suburb of Shakopee, were defying trade union bureaucrats in order to walk off the job, demanding an end to zero-hour contracts, impossible quotas and invasive surveillance technologies. 2019 hosted a swathe of mass uprisings around the world, including the longest general strike in modern French history, with workers continuing to fight back against neoliberal attacks on state pensions.
If Corbyn’s defeat has taught us anything, it’s that what we need right now is revolutionary, rather than parliamentary, socialism. The passivity, isolation and despair represented in Loach’s recent films are both products of, and serve to reproduce, a feeling of collective powerlessness and dependence on enlightened politicians rather than working-class self-organisation. In the absence of that belief, films intended to strengthen the case for socialism can turn into implicit arguments for surrender. But socialist viewers of Loach’s latest film should dispense with false hopes in parliamentary reform and channel their outrage into mass working-class mobilisation against the inevitable attacks that are yet to come.