Michael Moore: Q+A

The documentary-maker on capitalism, Obama and why Britain is about to get punished

This weekend, I've been watching films at Sheffield's Doc/Fest. One of the highlights so far has been Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story, which Jonathan has already blogged about here. After the screening, Moore answered questions from the audience (via Skype, no less). Below are a few choice excerpts.

Your film outlines the human impact of last year's financial crash. Do you have much hope that Obama can fix these problems?

You can't expect things to change overnight and there's not time in nine months to fix catastrophes left by the Bush administration. But I don't believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, and he might not be able to fix the problems left by Bush and Cheney.

In the UK there seemed to be more protection against the banking collapse. Why do you think the US doesn't have that protection?

For some reason as Americans we want you to be punished if you lose your job or get an illness. If you hit hard times it's at that moment that we want to be exceptionally cruel. People in America are good on an individual basis, but collectively we get angry at the world. Why do we want to punish people when they get ill? I've never really understood it.

Perhaps it's also because Americans don't know what's happening in the rest of the world. Why don't Americans travel more?

Why should we care about the rest of the world? People here aren't given a reason to care. And it's this attitude that kills creativity, kills curiosity. We don't want to know what's going on in France, Ireland, Finland; that's not surprising, really, seeing as we don't even care about ourselves.

I believe there is a basic goodness in people, but they've been made stupid. There are 44 million illiterate adults in the US. The media reinforces the stupidity and ignorance, which makes it very easy to manipulate people with fear. That's my country, anyway, I don't know how it is in the UK when you have a prime minister who tells you that Iraq could fire a missile on you within 45 minutes [laughs].

What is capitalism?

Well, I can only define it as it exists today -- the same as these days you wouldn't answer the question "What is marriage?" by saying: "Well, it's something that happens when the groom visits the bride's father to ask permission . . ." In 2009 capitalism is a system of legalised greed, organised to protect the 1 per cent who own most of the wealth.

Is the "American Dream" -- the idea that anyone can become rich if they work hard enough -- a good thing?

I think that's what it is: a dream, not a reality for most people. These days it's more of a nightmare. In the old days you could work hard and if your boss prospered, then you would prosper. Now you work hard, your boss prospers, then you get sick and you lose your job.

But there are a lot of reasons people all around the world like America. There is something about our get-up-and-go. Sometimes we're full of ideas -- sometimes they're not very good ideas, sometimes they're great. My frustration is our capacity to do so much good for the world, the fact we don't do it is criminal.

You were midway through making the film when Obama was elected president. How did that impact on the project?

Well, I can tell you how it impacted on us as a team: 4 November 2008 was one of the happiest days we've had in decades. We could not believe our fellow citizens came through and did this. There is a lot of racism around, so just the fact that people pushed through that and chose the better person, the smarter person.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in the 1930s, suddenly you had John Steinbeck, all this art, cinema, all these books -- we felt we were one of the first films of a new era, out of the darkness of the last 30 years. Kind of an enlightenment, that's how it feels.

I would like Roosevelt's dream of a second Bill of Rights [which would guarantee the right to a job, to education and to health care] to live on. When I say [in the film] that Europe has all these things, I don't mean you shouldn't have them. No system is perfect -- not even the NHS is perfect -- but you have at your core a belief that if someone gets sick they should be able to go to a doctor. So Obama gave us the feeling that maybe he will be the Roosevelt of the 21st century. We still have that hope, even after a year.

What practical advice would you give to everyday people who want to act on what they've seen in your film?

What you in the UK can do is stop being like us. All the consumption, the way we eat, the way we treat each other. What you've done in the UK, first during the Thatcher years, then during the Thatcher-lite years -- and especially your last prime minister -- you have copied the US and made it easier for the rich to get away with murder. You once had a system based on social democracy and you need to make sure that people still have a say.

Now you're going to have a Conservative prime minister, because people who supported Labour didn't rise up and say "enough". The UK provided a cover for Bush. Now you're going to get punished for it with a Conservative prime minister and I'm so sorry about that.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.