Ken Loach’s new film The Spirit of 45 looks back to a time in the history of this country that now seems almost impossible to imagine.
I spoke to Ken last year when he was filming at the Working Class Movement Library. It’s about the spirit of 1945”, he told me, ”the election and war victories, and what people thought they were building when they took over the public utilities, including the mines, railways and established the NHS.
The Spirit of 45 aims to recapture the spirit of an era when working class people were winning. The Labour Party won a landslide victory in the General Election in 1945, and went on to nationalise public industries such as the mines and railways and also create the National Health Service. As Ken says, It’s to celebrate the possibilities that people had in the 40s and to remember them.
He is clear about who is responsible for the destruction of the dreams of 1945, believing that the key principles of that period have been betrayed by successive politicians, It began in the late 70s with Thatcher at the forefront of attacks on nationalised industries Ken says, but carried on under New Labour. It is not politically correct to remember the times when we owned things collectively. Now people are taught to be competitive and not to work together as a team. He feels that if we are to reclaim the NHS, and other forms of common ownership, a new mass movement is needed. We need people to come together, to stop the sectarian splits, stop the charismatic leaders and get together in a mass, democratic organisation.
I am not so sure that it is as simple as Ken sincerely believes. Thatcher did undoubtedly wreak havoc in the 1980s across our public services and created mass unemployment, never mind the effect on the trade unions, the Labour Party and the left in this country. I was involved in supporting the Miners in the 1984-1985 strike, as were tens of thousands of others.
However my own experience is that, with the growth of the economy in the 1990s, many working class people managed to get a standard of living only dreamt of or seen on TV, although it is true that some of this was gained through buying and then selling council properties and that people used credit to buy a lifestyle that they could not afford, including several holidays abroad every year, being able to move into a more middle class neighbourhood and having greater expectations for their children.
Maybe the deference factor changed in that working class people now felt they had a right to a better way of life. And maybe after working with, or being managed by middle class managers, they knew they could do those jobs. They did not feel it was a fair system whereby those jobs went to people who had the money to ensure that they could get better jobs for themselves and their children.
Women were beneficiaries of the boom in the 1990s, as the expansion in banking, finance and the public services gave them jobs and opportunities for advancement. Childrens’ Services, for instance, where I worked was just one area where, as the legal framework and professionalisation of the service increased, women from all different education backgrounds were able to take advantage of the new jobs.
Gaining financial independence meant women could make more choices about their lifestyle including marriage, cohabitation, children and also indulging themselves, symbolised by the number of nail parlours on every high street.
But what about the Left during this time? I have always worked in the public sector and it seems to me the trade unions just retreated into being part of the service sector. When I was a shop steward in Manchester in the 1980s we had regular meetings with members, branch meetings and an annual general meeting. By the 1990s there were few of these meetings, reflecting the attitude of the members and the absence of the union.
The decline of manufacturing and engineering in this country mirrored the retreat of the trade unions and lack of organisation in the new areas of work. Whilst unions such as Usdaw still organised in the growing sector of the supermarkets. other areas became union-free, including retail outlets and catering , areas which saw lots of young people get their first job and experience (often after after 3 years of a degree), working in conditions similar to a sweat shop. The trade unions had forgotten the lessons of the early 20 Century when organisations such as National Federation of Women Workers and Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council organised the women working in sweatshops or home working.
Over the last twenty years life for young people has seen many changes, often for the worse. For young people who live in poor families, or have had to leave the family home, the change in benefits introduced by the Tories in 1988 when their right to claiming benefits was reduced to a discretionary basis meant the creeping dependency of young people on their parents/carers. They were expected and encouraged to stay in full-time education at 16 (hence the Educational Maintenance Award), but for those young people who wanted to go into an apprenticeship or just get a job, the options were limited. There was growing cultural shift so that 16-18 years olds did not work, or if they did, it was while undertaking a full-time education course.
Labour’s return to power in 1997 reinforced and accelerated this change within society. In their world everyone would want to be like them. Everyone was middleclass and everyone was winning. Their harshness to single parents, people on benefits and those who could not live the dream mirrored the Tory administrations of previous years. This was played out at the annual Labour conference which became more and more like the Tory conference. There was no vision for a better society or a more equal society, just one built on money and advancement through the accumulation of money.
So in 2013 what is happening to our dreams for a better future? Many of the jobs created over the last 20 years are now in decline as the Tories lay waste the public sector while Labour councils make no attempt to defend local services and jobs. At the same time the crisis in the banking system has already shrunk the workforce and, as in public services, led to a growing number of women losing their jobs.
Speaking to people who have lost their jobs or are just holding onto them, I can hear a growing sense of anger at the decline of not just jobs and income, but the end of a dream of a better future. Some people are looking for the antidote to this pain through alcohol and this is very obvious if you travel on public transport to cities such as Manchester or if you spend any time in the A&E’s of local hospitals.
Ironically it is the campaign to save the NHS that seems to offer the opportunity for people to get together to start building an opposition to the wholesale destruction of our way of life. At a recent conference in Manchester over 100 people (many not from the traditional left) met up to challenge the privatisation of the NHS.
Like Ken, I do believe that we need a mass movement to produce a better society, but I think we are far from achieving that at the moment. I think we need films such as The Spirit of 45 to remind us of the past, but I think if and when change comes, it will have to come from those people who are at the bottom and who are really experiencing the harshness of life.
Spirit of 45 can be seen at
Join the protest against the privatisation of the NHS April 2
Timing: assemble 7.30am Cornbrook Metrolink stop (free parking nearby), go to Media:City Metrolink stop 7.45am, go outside BBC building on Media:City campus at 8am. Join us at those times en route if you can’t make it to Cornbrook for 7.30.