Why the rich should now be made to pay

The architect of Tony Blair's 'third way' outlines 16 steps to a fairer Britain

Britain remains a society with too many inequalities, too many barriers to opportunity for those at the bottom. "Not enough redistribution!" say some. If only things were so simple. Redistribution there must be, but much more besides.

Average income in the UK has grown substantially since 1997 - 2.4 per cent a year to the end of 2005. London has had the highest rises. However, if differences in house prices are taken into account, there is far less variation between London and other areas in spending power. There has actually been considerable redistribution towards pensioners (a term I dislike), single parents and children. The proportion of older people living in poverty is smaller than the average for the population as a whole. In 1997 there were 13.8 million people living in poverty, as measured after housing costs, or 10.2 million before housing costs; these figures have fallen to 11.4 million and 9.2 million. A fifth of the population now lives below the poverty line (60 per cent of median income), compared to almost a quarter in 1997.

The government failed to meet its declared target of reducing child poverty by a quarter by the end of the financial year 2005. Although 700,000 children were lifted out of poverty, reducing the overall number to its lowest since the late 1980s, this figure was still 300,000 short of the target set.

Ministers pledged in 1998 that child poverty would be halved by 2011. If present polices are maintained, however, the level will not differ much from now on. Like other forms of poverty in Britain, child poverty is a relative measure. The government's target of "eliminating" child poverty by 2020 has not yet been clearly defined. Three countries in Europe have managed to achieve child poverty rates of just 5 per cent - Denmark, Norway and Finland - which is about as close as anyone could ever get. Yet even achieving a rate of less than 10 per cent would represent considerable success for British society. A significant change in policy is required, now, if the 2020 target is to be met.

Those on the old left seem to think it easy to reduce inequality: you take money from the rich and give it to the poor. Yet the rich, however defined, are a tiny minority. If they are to be taxed more, it should be for reasons other than just a little more redistribution, otherwise it would do virtually nothing to alleviate the structural problems that make the UK so unequal. Here are 16 policy areas that could make a difference.

1 Make reducing child poverty a driving force, as just mentioned.

2 Conventional redistributive mechanisms should stay in place, but they should be adjusted. Congestion charging and parking charges in cities, for instance, can be designed to have a progressive content - many poorer people do not own a car; the proceeds can be channelled into improving public transport; drivers of larger cars can be made to pay more.

3 Active labour-market policy (the New Deal and welfare-to-work) is important in reducing the disruptive effects of job loss. But because of rising levels of technological change and international competition, we need to explore policies that will help workers even before jobs start to be lost. The present policies are like throwing people into a pool to see if they can swim and helping them only once it is clear they can't. Far better to prepare them. The possibilities include using vouchers for in-work training for those in vulnerable industries, as part of an agreement to accept lower wages for a period. Such schemes, usually involving employers, unions and the government, are already being pioneered in some European countries. In Austria, work foundations have been set up to provide a network of resources for workers who become redundant. Where a company is forced to lay off large numbers of workers, those who stay in their jobs make a contribution as a gesture of solidarity. The company makes a larger overall donation. Those who lose their jobs contribute half their redundancy payments. The state also provides support for retraining and job search.

Helping hand

4 We should start to think of employment or wage insurance. Two-thirds of workers who lose their jobs earn lower wages when they find new work. Wage insurance would replace a substantial proportion of lost earnings for up to two years. A pilot version exists in the US. Under the programme, workers have to show that they lost their jobs as a result of trade competition, be over the age of 50, make less than $50,000 in a new job, and be re-employed within six months of being made redundant.

5 On average, older people in Britain have become better-off since 1997, but 17 per cent still live below the poverty line. We should aim to get to 60:60 - 60 per cent or more of those over the age of 60 in work, in full-time or part-time jobs.

6 People who live in embedded poverty may have few skills, have problems with drugs, fall into a life of crime and find it hard to sustain lasting relationships. The experience since 1997 shows that policies based on benefits or tax credits have little impact, partly because of low levels of take-up. An important approach is intervention targeted at the very young. Research shows that, at the age of two or three, children can establish behaviour patterns that are very difficult to break. Another factor is housing. About 50,000 people nationally, who might otherwise be on the streets, live in hostels or temporary accommodation, but these people cannot find more permanent homes. There are also large numbers of "hidden homeless", who are sleeping on the floors of friends or family members. The government has invested millions in repairing existing council houses, but more social housing is the only feasible solution for those at the bottom.

7 Research shows that even owning a small amount of capital can make an important difference in life. People who own assets at the age of 23 generally earn more ten years later than those without them, even when income, class and gender are taken out of the equation. The government's Child Trust Fund pays £250 to every child at birth. Children from poorer backgrounds get double that sum. The fund is topped up when the child is seven; again, there is more money for poorer children. The child cannot touch the money - nor can the parents - before he or she reaches 18. Surveys show that poorer parents appreciate this scheme.

8 Poverty is an endemic condition for some, but there is also far more movement in and out of poverty than we used to think. We should recognise that much poverty is biographical. People fall into poverty through specific life events and episodes, such as divorce or the break-up of a relationship, leaving the parental home, illness or, of course, losing a job. It follows that we should not concentrate policy solely on those who are poor at any one time, but upon those just above the poverty line.

9 The relationship between work and non-work has grown more complex. We should think of policy more in terms of the lifespan, rather than the here and now. This means seeing employment differently from the way we did in the past - as a temporary state or an expression of long-term employability. A guiding ideal, for both sexes, might be a 30-hour working week over the entire career of the in dividual, with various interruptions or career breaks and allowance for part-time work.

10 The Women and Work Commission found that the gap between the pay of men and women working full-time in 2005 was 17 per cent in hourly pay rates. Although this has closed somewhat, there are several reasons why women still tend to lose out, all of which could be eased by policy intervention.

11 Two-thirds of those claiming Pension Credit are women. At the moment, 85 per cent of men are entitled on retirement to a full basic state pension, compared to 30 per cent of women; only 24 per cent of women have that entitlement on the basis of their own contributions. The government has introduced a new contributory principle, but it will not do much to help in the immediate future. The pension system, moreover, remains extraordinarily complex.

12 Lifestyle changes are starting to influence inequalities a great deal - not just reflect them - especially in health. The remedies here will have to be behavioural rather than simply economic. It has been found, for example, that improving the diet of children with special needs, and combining this with exercise, significantly improves their attitudes and attainment.

13 Giving an effective choice of school to parents from poorer backgrounds must be backed by further policy strategies. One indicator of underprivilege is entitlement to free school meals. Just 3 per cent of pupils at the best-performing state schools fall into this category - showing the extent of "middle-class capture", but also that the pre-existing system was not fair. The average nationally is 17 per cent. The government has made some innovations to try to reverse this. The new school code suggests introducing a lottery-type admission system, to stop parents gaining admission for their children by buying houses nearby. Some city academies already operate random allocation policies, ensuring that certain children from poor backgrounds get a place. The new code is mandatory and will cover anyone applying to state schools in 2008, but other policies must be explored.

14 Labour has largely left private schools alone. Gordon Brown says he wants to increase spending on state schools to the level of private ones. That is a laudable intention, but it can't be realised overnight. Some effort has been made to oblige private schools to show social responsibility. In the UK, the private system is explicitly geared to providing advantages for the sons and daughters of those already advantaged. And it works: 48 per cent of students at Cambridge attended a private school, and 45 per cent of those at Oxford, although only 7 per cent of the population as a whole is educated at such schools. The government has been reluctant to support the scheme pioneered by the philanthropist Peter Lampl, but it should show more interest. The Belvedere School in Liverpool is private. Lampl has given funds to help it operate blind-needs admission. Anyone who qualifies for entry is guaranteed a place, regardless of financial circumstances. The scheme has been a remarkable success, with children from a wide range of backgrounds represented at the Belvedere.

15 Universities could look at a scheme originally introduced, somewhat surprisingly, in Texas, and now taken up in France. In 1997 the state of Texas introduced a policy whereby all students graduating in the top 10 per cent of their class in high school are guaranteed university entrance. As a result, the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds and minorities has grown steadily. Evidence so far shows that students admitted in this way perform as well academically as those accepted in the usual fashion. It is easier to apply the idea in France than in the UK, because of the centralised nature of French higher education. Yet either the government, or universities themselves, could agree to pilot a similar scheme in a city or region.

16 Finally, what about the rich? What about the way corporate leaders' salaries have been pulling away from those of their employees? What about the City high-flyers making millions in salaries and bonuses? Should Labour, as Peter Mandelson once remarked, be "relaxed about people getting filthy rich"? No!

Assets for a few

Labour can no longer be against entrepreneurs, the driving forces of economic success. But becoming wealthy should carry with it social obligations, such as to give something back to society, to pay tax in full, and to encourage social and environmental responsibility within companies. For several decades after the Second World War, the ratio of top executives' earnings to average income was stable. In the 1980s, it began to accelerate away and has not stopped since.

There is no official richness line in the same way as there is a poverty line. Let's say arbitrarily that "the rich" are the top 0.05 per cent. Labour should consider introducing a wealth tax of the kind found in some other countries. Wealth is more unequally distributed than income, with a high concentration in the hands of a few. The economist Edward Wolff has suggested for the United States a system based on the Swiss model. Assets would be taxed annually, according to a steeply progressive scale. Those with assets under a specific threshold would not pay, with steeper rates cutting in at, say, £1m in assets. This system would generate about 1 per cent of total revenue - more than would be achieved in the UK if income tax were raised to 50 per cent for people earning more than £100,000. It would be easy to administer, Wolff says, because it could be fully integrated with personal income tax.

The proceeds of such a tax, if implemented here, should not go into the Treasury coffers, but be devoted to a specific purpose - for example, helping children from underprivileged backgrounds get into higher education. Those contributing substantial sums to charity could be absolved from the tax.

Reducing tax evasion and getting rid of the loopholes that make widespread tax avoidance possible should be priorities - as far as possible on an international as well as a national level. The Conservatives have talked about abolishing inheritance tax, but the strategy should be to make it more progressive. At present only 6 per cent of inherited wealth is taken in tax. A steeper rate at the top (in addition, again, to keeping control of loopholes) would be fairer and would generate more revenue (the Budget made some changes in this direction).

Philanthropy is clearly one of the main responsibilities of high earners, because they should give back to the society that has helped them realise their opportunities. In the US, top earners in effect pay a voluntary tax on their earnings, and large numbers accept the obligation. Some prominent figures have given away virtually their whole fortune, especially towards the end of their lives. There is not the same culture of philanthropy in this country, and despite the introduction of tax incentives, there is not yet the same level of tax breaks.

In October, top managers at Siemens in Germany were awarded a pay rise of 30 per cent. The company was in the middle of restructuring, and many workers stood to lose their jobs. Most of the workforce had already accepted pay cuts through agreements that reduced their hours of work. Faced with an uproar, the executives announced that they would donate their pay rises to help workers in a subsidiary whose jobs were threatened. In Britain, the management might have been praised for keeping the company on an even keel in the face of overseas competition. Our business culture needs to change.

"We must show that . . . we will be a party that is for working people, not rich and powerful vested interests." Who said this? Not Tony Blair, not Gordon Brown, but David Cameron. Labour should take note.

Anthony Giddens's new book, "Over to You, Mr Brown: how Labour can win again", is published by Polity (£9.99, paperback)

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?