Follow us on: Twitter, Facebook RSS

Skip to main content

The Navigators

Event Q&A Transcript

1. This film was made in 2001 and watching it again I found it very depressing that it feels more relevant now. Can you both talk about the issues that are raised in this film and your reaction to it today?

Ken Loach: Alex will be able to talk with more knowledge than me about the railways now. They were privatised at the end of John Major’s time as Prime Minister in the early 90’s with the disastrous consequences that you have just seen. I think the relevance now is that this is the way employment has gone, particularly for the young people like you and that the jobs you’re likely to get, unless you’re lucky are short term, casual agency work. The possibility of planning a career and secure life with security of income is much less now than it was certainly when my generation grew up and in a way I feel that I have to apologise because this is a terrible legacy that we left you. It is shocking and it doesn’t have to be. The only way we can stop it is if you take on board the challenge of stopping this madness. The idea that work, that contributing to the society in which we live in, having a secure income, being able to bring up a family, knowing you will be able to provide for them and have a home and look forward to a life that is secure has gone. And it has gone because of the bastards who did this. We often hear talk of John Major as a cuddly figure that likes cricket and is very amiable fellow, actually this is what he did and this is what this whole class did. And you are paying the price, not me because I am past it now, but you are paying the price. The only way we can change it is if you say its not good enough, it has to stop. I think its just a little film but what we wanted to do was indicate that this is the way that it turned out and its, as I say, shocking.

Alex Gordon: The relevance of that film today. When I first saw it in Paris with Ken at a premiere that was put on by the rail workers unions just after the Venice La Biennale where it premiered originally and at that time I said it was like watching a documentary of my life 10 years earlier because it really is shockingly real with the events that happen, the type of people – the characters. But its relevance today is that we’ve just seen last week, this huge fuss in the newspapers and on the telly about the privatization contract for the West Coast Mainline – the rail line that runs from London to Glasgow via Manchester and Liverpool, which is the biggest private railway contract in the country. You can see that these grubby private companies are still falling over each other – Richard Branson, companies like First Group and the great big multinationals with shareholders to appease – are falling over each other to make money out of public transport and our railway system. What the film shows you, not only because it is very funny and you get to like the characters, is the cancerous way in which privatisation effects human relationships. So it’s not just about private companies extracting profit, its about them turning people against each other and that’s what happens in the gang – a gang of men all working together who know each other very well but by the end there’s a betrayal. They betray each other, someone dies as a result and that’s because of privatisation. That process is the relevance of the film today - that malicious process of privatisation has carried on. Richard Branson who’s famous this week for talking about his railway interests is also now in charge of the NHS trust for Surry. So they’re not just privatising the railways they’re also privatising the health service. Free schools, academy schools – education has been privatised. This process has spread like a cancer through society and as it does it effects the relationships we have with each other. So that’s why the film is really relevant today.

2. Was this film inspired by the year that Sheffield was going through that spiral decline? There were moments in Sheffield where the year the steel works were going through decline many other jobs were lost and rail maintenance was one of them.

Ken Loach: Well I think there was a big decline throughout all the areas where all the old industries used to work and Sheffield was one but the film didn’t come from that. The film came from a railway worker called Rob Dawber who had been through the whole years of privatisation and wrote to me and said would you like to do a film about this. He wanted to call it ‘Freedom of Choice’, and quite rightly, because the way privatisation was presented to railway workers was a series of choices and different stages – you can choose which you want, which course you want, whether you want to stay with the old company or maybe you want to move to one of the new thrusting ones because you’ll make much more money if you move – do you want a permanent contract or do you want to work piece by piece because you’ll make much more money if you work job by job. So at every time and at every point they were given a choice, they weren’t really given a choice in order to run down the British Rail companies so that it could appear that nobody was forced to leave their jobs but it was a kind of manipulation of peoples choices and there’s just so many things that are shocking about it. One concerns the points of view that Alex has been talking about and I think so many people share. We have no way of making this happen within our democracy because the point of a democracy is that we vote for people we agree with to get into parliament and then they do what you want them to do. We don’t have that choice, there is no political party now that will carry out the ideas that Alex was talking about and that the majority of the people working on the railway system would like to see happen. In other words – we start working as a team again and we re-establish the old railway culture of safety, continuity and public service. There’s no one we can vote for, the Labour party who said they were going to do it haven’t, didn’t, wouldn’t, wont. Apart from the actual issue of privatisation it’s a failed democracy and that’s a massive issue for every area of our lives. How do we take control again, of these big issues and ways our lives are affected and challenged? It affects working and the kind of work that will be available to you. But also the pattern of our lives, the pattern of our society, there’s a real democratic failure right at the heart of our system and it’s something we have to address.

3. Just a quick question about language, which you referred to just then and in the film – could you discuss more about how language played a part in the way things have been sold to us?

Ken Loach: Yes, well, there’s all kinds of words – “Flexibility” – no one wants to be in-flexible but flexibility, if you’re in the workforce, is crap because it means you work when he wants you and you don’t work when they don’t want you. So you get paid for when he wants you and you don’t get paid when he doesn’t. So flexibility on behalf of the work ethic is now the zero hours contracts and some of you may be offered zero hour contracts. I met a kid in Wales just recently who was a carer for old people and I asked her what she did and what her contract was and she said it’s a zero hour contract. In other words, she’s employed by this firm but she doesn’t get paid unless they phone her up and say can you go and look after Mr. so and so this week? How can this person live? They have no secure income, can’t get anywhere to rent and has to live with their parents. And that’s what they want because for the employer that’s great, they don’t have any expense apart from when they want you there – they turn the tap on and then you appear but they don’t want you next week so they turn the tap off. They haven’t got any commitments to you – no sick pay, no holiday pay, no maternity leave, nothing. The wickedness of the system is that it demands people do this because for the big employers who don’t do this, their costs will be higher and the investment will go to the employers that have that facility. So that’s why built into the system is this gross exploitation of people and in a way that’s what we never hear, somehow this is the way forward. We have to get competitive, being competitive is a zero hours contract and for some of you that’s what it means.

Alex Gordon: Ken is quite right about the abuse of certain words; ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ which are used in the film to mean: as little cost as possible for the firm. Now what actually happens in the real story of what the film is based on, which is the privatisation of the railways in the mid 1990’s, is that private firms were able to, almost for free, get an enormous public investment in skills. You saw for example with one of the characters when he goes to a Labour agency and is told he is going to have to pay £200 to get his track safety cards and qualifications renewed and he says “what, I have to pay that myself?” and they say “Oh, yes.” But of course what the private firms that got in on the privatisation have got was thousands and thousands of workers with extremely high skills sets that they would never have been able to afford to train up themselves. People who knew their industry intimately, people who were irreplaceable and they got them for nothing. Then they proceeded to abuse them and exploit them ferociously for the next 5-10 years until we had this succession of railway accidents, which lead to a reassessment or renationalisation of the chaos that had pursued after the first round of privatisation. So I think the film’s almost clairvoyant about the effect of Labour agencies, the abuse of language and of course the use of zero hour contracts which they were actually talking about in the film, they just didn’t yet have the words or the cheek to propose to somebody that they should be tied to an employer but not get any guaranteed work for it. It is discussed among the characters but they don’t quite have the label for it as a zero hour contract. This is what is being forced upon your generation along with these dreadful compulsory work schemes that young people are forced onto in order to get benefit.

4. That film does resonate now completely. I work with young people and I worry about their future at the moment, I think it’s a really difficult time to be a young person. What can they do to change things? What would your advice be to them?

Ken Loach: Well our generation cocked-up, how can I give advice? But I think you have to try together. Individually you are nothing; you are on your own and can do nothing. Collectively we can be really strong. Traditionally places where people have worked together are within unions. Some unions are brilliant and I think the RNC are one of those, not just because Alex is here but also because since the time of privatisation it has had such strong leadership. There are many other unions that really are progressive; many are stuck in old-fashioned attitudes that were part of the problem not the answer. It is joining together, in whatever form that is, and I would say join a union and make certain it carries out what it needs to. There’s other good organisations as well, I think the Occupy Movement has been good, UK and Cut is good – again they need to develop but I think just join together, be part of the answer don’t just sit on the sidelines, be progressive and know your enemy because the enemy can be so subtle and so manipulative and controls what you hear and read. All television broadcasts aren’t made by some objective god-like figure that’s making fair judgments. They’re putting forward a case and because they are so clever it is hard to detect that case. One way of detecting is by thinking, what are the questions they aren’t asking? They don’t deal with the issue of privatisation now, although they should. In the current story of the lies of the South Yorkshire Police over the death of the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough – the question they are not asking is, What about other police forces? What about the deaths in police custody that have been covered up? What about the deaths of the police in Northern Ireland that we don’t ask about? They’re not asking about that, its like there was just one bad apple police force. It isn’t the case - there are other examples. So just join in and there’s one more thing to say about that – now it’s not only about privatisation its about having a world that will actively accommodate you and your families because we are destroying it so fast. As the big companies profits reduce and reduce so there attack on the planet gets more and more intense. I have just heard now that they plan to build all over the countryside because they won’t use the city centers. This process is called cracking which again is an assault on what bit of the countryside we have left. So they will destroy the planet if they are left to their own devices. So it is really important that you join in.

Alex Gordon: Can I just add something to that? People used to get told this when they left school, well before they left school because when I was at school we had someone come round and speak to us from the local trades union council but when people left school they were told by their parents to join a trades union. This is not told to people anymore by their parents necessarily. We’ve had a generation where trade unionism has been in decline. It has dropped from 13 million members in the trade union movement to about 6 million today and because of that the lesson that we used to get taught on our parents knee that we had to join a trades union in order to protect yourself and if you’ve got respect for yourself – to protect yourself while your at work, which is going to be a major part of your life, isn’t drummed home in the same way anymore. If this film does one thing it ought to tell everyone who watches it that you need to be a member of a trade union – not after you’ve been at work for a few months but non the day you join or before you become a member of a work force you should be looking for a union. Unions are democratic organisations of workers and the only people you can rely on to protect your interest at work while you’re in a very unequal power relationship with a supervisor or a manager is other workers who you work with – you’ve got to get this message out of this film. I did say to Ken when I first saw the film was that one of the odd things about it was that nowhere in the film is a union overtly mentioned. There’s just one seen where Gerry is passed a blue book near the beginning of the film, by one of the guys who is taking voluntary redundancy and leaving the railway, and he says “hear you go, here’s the British Rail Conditions of Service book”. It’s actually a union book with a union logo on the front cover, containing all the union conditions but if you came from another planet and watched the film you’d think there wasn’t a trade union amongst railway workers. I think that was for dramatic purpose but of course that’s not the reality at all. There’s many workplaces out there now where there is no sign of a union so you have got to take the initiative yourself and make sure that you join as soon as you enter a workplace to protect yourself from health & safety, your pensions and your future – it is really important.