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The art of the political wager: how to make money betting on the general election

The only certainty about this year's election is that it will break all previous betting records. So who should you be placing your money on?

Photomontage by Dan Murrell

At the end of October 2008 I found myself in Las Vegas, as one does. I was not there for any of the customary purposes, though I might have played a few mindless late-night hands of blackjack for the sake of it. I was there to follow Barack Obama, then on the verge of the presidency, and campaigning in the swing state of Nevada.

Obama spoke to a large, zealous Saturday-afternoon crowd on a high-school football field. But the sight that really struck me came early that evening, in a suburban shopping mall. Nevada was one of the states that had embraced early voting, and already – ten days before polling day – the voting machines were in full cry, and easily mistakable for the one-armed bandits that are permanent fixtures in Las Vegas malls.

But Nevada has enough gambling oppor­tunities to go round. These machines attracted a long line, not of casino-goers, but of the people who attend to their needs. They were young, mainly female and non-white. And there was no need to be intrusively journalistic and ask the bleedin’ obvious: they were not queuing to pick John McCain, who had secured his Republican base by transforming himself from a thoughtful and original politician into a fat-headed curmudgeon.

At once it was clear to me not merely that Obama would win Nevada and thus the nation, but that in effect he had won already. I shared this thought with my newspaper readers, but there was something else I would normally have done: backed my judgement with money. Three things stopped me.

First, the notion of President Obama was no longer startling – he was now heavily odds-on, which is not my kind of betting. Second, I had (forgive the little swank) started putting money on Obama in the UK more than a year earlier, when it was generally assumed Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. Third, such a bet here was out of the question. Even in the gambling capital of the world, American squeamishness is overwhelming. Though nearly every state has a lottery, bookmaking is frowned on by polite society; and betting on politics is considered sinful. A nice man from the trade magazine Gaming Today explained the background to me: in 1980, when the TV soap Dallas was the talk of the planet, one casino, in addition to its normal prices on American sports, had issued prices for Who Shot JR?. The Nevada Gaming Control Board went apeshit and banned all bets on non-sporting subjects.

And to this day the vagaries of US law make the practice difficult and hazardous anywhere from Washington to Waikiki. It has become even tougher since the demise in 2013 of Intrade, an Irish-based “online prediction trading exchange”, which for a time successfully disguised political gambling in the garb of a stock market. There are still the Iowa Electronic Markets, run by a university business school, which, “for educational and research purposes”, are allowed to accept small bets – $500 absolute max over an entire four-year election cycle – to create a simulacrum of a real market. In Britain last year a Surrey businessman placed a total of £900,000 with William Hill on a No vote in the Scottish referendum (he won £193,000).

That is a little out of my own league, but on the whole I am pleased to live in a country that makes it harder to shoot random strangers than have a bet. My name is Matthew and I adore punting on politics. And I have no plans to give up – certainly not in the next three and a half months as we approach the most fascinating, multilayered and downright bettable general election in British history. Already odds are being offered about almost every imaginable contingency for polling day and after, including prices for every constituency from Aberavon to Yorkshire East. The two biggest bookmakers, William Hill and Ladbrokes, both had a turnover of more than £3m on the Scottish referendum, suggesting an industry total of £10m-£15m. There is perhaps only one certainty about the 2015 election: it is going to break all previous betting records.

The propensity to wager is an innate part of the human condition, and perhaps the divine condition, too: the Greek gods played dice to divvy up responsibility (Zeus won the skies, Poseidon the seas and Hades the underworld). More attestably, men were betting on political outcomes when sport was not organised or regular enough to offer an alternative. Stephen Alford, in his new biography, Edward VI, says that as the boy-king lay dying in 1553, merchants in Antwerp were betting on the disputed succession. In 1743, when George II made the nostalgic and quixotic decision to lead his own troops into battle against the French at Dettingen, it was said to be 4/1 in the London coffee shops against the silly fool getting himself killed. He survived.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a sturdy betting market on presidential elections among Wall Street traders which was well regarded for its accuracy in predicting the result. There was similar activity in the City of London and West End clubs – and with UK bookmakers, whose odds until 1961 were legally available only to the minority able to bet on credit. In the US, bookmaking got itself associated with the Mob and became ever more taboo. In Britain it was legalised and democratised.

Once the bookies came out of the shadows and into the high streets, political odds became universally available, and publicised. The first great contest after the arrival of betting shops was for the Tory leadership in 1963, with Rab Butler the odds-on favourite who got turned over, as some shrewdies must have sensed, by the 5/1 shot Lord Home. The Guardian reported a stinging attack on the practice by the Labour politician Ian Mikardo. “A sad day for Britain,” he called it. “The Tories have dragged the premiership down to the level of the Donkey Derby.” This constituted the most glorious piece of chutzpah. Mikardo is remembered these days as a) a highly effective left-wing operator and b) the semi-official Commons bookmaker, taking his colleagues’ political bets for decades.

Perhaps Mikardo resented the competition. But he was not the only one expressing doubts. Hills and Ladbrokes were already emerging as the Big Two betting firms in the new era, vying for the title World’s Biggest Bookmaker. The Ladbrokes boss Cyril Stein enthusiastically embraced politics as a business opportunity. The eponymous William Hill, still firmly in charge of his own firm, had moral qualms: “If this became a fever and millions of people went for it, I think it could affect the ballot box,” he said in a radio debate with Stein before the 1966 election. “And electing a government is a very serious business.”

Hill’s biographer Graham Sharpe admits his man lost that argument hands down, especially as he had by then already given in and started offering prices. No one else shared his view that anyone might vote primarily to support their bet. And Stein made clear in the debate there was no question of stepping across the real ethical divide:

“Would you be prepared to bet on anything?” the interviewer asked Stein.

“Anything living, yes.”

“. . . The number of people killed in the Vietnam war during a certain period, or dying during a cholera epidemic?”

“No, I said that we bet on anything living.”

The principle was thus established and has been very rarely breached since: no Battle of Dettingen-type odds. And what Stein had grasped was that taking bets on events beyond sport had a remarkable spin-off: it got the company name into parts of the media it would never otherwise reach. This was not about simple, calculable profit and loss: embracing events beyond the sports pages offered fantastic PR.

Deep down, Hill knew that, too. Two years earlier, in 1964, his firm had taken a £10 bet from a young man in Preston, David Threlfall, at 1,000/1 against a human landing on the moon by the end of the decade; the strict calculus suggests that the odds were crazed, as President John F Kennedy had set the goal before his death. In 1969 Hills had to pay Threlfall £10,000 (about £145,000 now, by the most conservative reckoning). It made the bookies cautious for a while, yet the impression was created that these are not legalised mafiosi but sometimes naive good sports, and it has paid massive dividends for them.

And so, the bookmakers still pursue this kind of business, from customised novelty (will a newborn son play cricket for England?) to reality TV (who will be next to be evicted from Big Brother?), with an eye focused far more on the headline than the bottom line. But no sane bookmaker now accepts serious money on this stuff, or indeed anything where there is a risk of insider trading (this includes betting on the next archbishop of Canterbury). On a general election, however, there is both huge interest and a level playing field: the PM hardly knows more than the rest of us. So it’s a win double for the bookies: acres of column inches and big turnover, too.

And the strange thing about political betting is that the punters can also have objectives over and above the customary chance of winning money. It is possible to identify at least four completely different types of bet never seen on a racecourse:

The insurance bet: This was particularly prevalent up to the 1970s, when a Labour government might have a serious effect on a rich man’s wallet. It existed even before betting shops: there were reports of large credit bets before the 1951 election and in the 1960s steel magnates were thought to have backed Labour heavily to get a consolation prize in case of nationalisation.

The momentum bet: When Clement Freud stood as Liberal candidate in the Isle of Ely by-election in 1973, he began as a 33/1 outsider. He then placed several £300 bets, enough to send the odds plummeting. “The clever money seems to be going on Freud,” said the Daily Telegraph. As the candidate later put it: “Actually, it was the Freud money going on Freud.” But it created the sense of impetus that has always been crucial to by-election upsets. Freud won and held the seat for 14 years. (When the Tories won it back, Freud was 5/1 on.) There were also persistent rumours, never confirmed, that Chris Huhne’s campaign team had hefty bets on their man before he lost narrowly in Lib Dem leadership campaigns to both Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg.

The heart-not-head bet: Though the big money in the Scottish referendum was for No, nearly all the small bets were for Yes, apparently coming from shiny-faced pro-independence voters anxious to back their hopes, not their fears.

The grandstanding bet: At the Rochester by-election last November Michael Gove publicly placed a £50 bet on the doomed Tory candidate. This had no purpose except to draw attention to Gove’s continued existence and ambition.

The original purpose of both sides – trying to make a profit on the transaction – is certainly not absent. Indeed, in recent years it has become more central. At the heart of this phenomenon is a new class somewhat different from the blokes who hang round the betting shops. Their bible is a somewhat clunky blog-cum-website, PoliticalBetting.com, founded ten years ago by an ex-journalist, university fundraiser and Liberal Democrat candidate called Mike Smithson, who lost his political betting virginity as a teenager in the 1963 Tory leadership shemozzle.

Smithson uses the slogan: “The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble” (Bedford, actually), which for political betting purposes is definitely the place to be. No one can make money from the bookmakers by following conventional wisdom. And Smithson and his small team of contributors are particularly good at getting beyond that.

But of the two words in the site’s title, the first is more significant. This is a wonkish site first and foremost. I am not sure whether knowing that the Conservatives retained a seat on Rother District Council by winning the Darwell by-election adds to the sophistication of my political analysis, especially when I am not sure where either Rother or Darwell might be. But it certainly makes me feel clued up. As does the rigour Smithson brings to the study of polling data.

The site’s small profit, however, comes from the betting firms paying commission on click-throughs that generate custom, although the companies are just a bit wary of this new business. “I know who some of these people are,” says Matthew Shaddick, head of political betting at Ladbrokes. “A lot of them are political obsessives: activists, poll-watchers, or they work in political HQs. Real anoraky stats people, or political scientists with their own models.” In other words, not necessarily the mug punters the bookies traditionally love.

Shaddick is the embodiment of the industry’s response. He is 45, and took a degree in politics and modern history at Manchester before becoming a Ladbrokes lifer. A few years back, the firm was looking for someone in the office to look after the politics bets. “I put my hand up on the basis that it would take a couple of hours a week,” said Shaddick. Now it’s his full-time job.

Over at William Hill, political betting is largely overseen by the founder’s biographer, Graham Sharpe, who has been at the firm since 1972 and is now its media relations director. Sharpe is a long-standing master of the showbiz aspects of the operation. In particular, he arranged sponsorship to keep Screaming Lord Sutch in business as a national treasure through the 1980s and 1990s. Sutch was the indifferent pop singer and magnificent self-publicist who stood in 41 elections, passing 1,000 votes just once. (He added greatly to the national merriment, if not to his own, and committed suicide in 1999, aged 58.)

Sharpe took what is thought to be the longest-odds bet in history: £10 from Sutch that he would become prime minister at 15 million/1. It was understood that Sharpe would have been compensated for the inevitable loss of his job at Hills with a place in His Lordship’s cabinet.

Though their background and perspectives are very different, both Sharpe and Shaddick see politics as a major growth area. Excluding the skill-free but profitable internet casinos and one-armed bandits in the shops, the bookmakers’ core betting business is now split evenly three ways: one-third football, which is rising; one-third racing, which is falling; one-third everything else including politics – which Shaddick reckons is the fastest-growing area of all.

They also agree it is very different from other betting, and that there is little overlap between political punters and other clients until the final days of the campaign. Suspected political know-alls are treated with the same respect as a big-time racing insider. It is both a nuisance and a badge of honour to try to place a carefully worked-out wager and be told by a huge and allegedly fearless multinational that it will only accept a sum that would not even shake the toytown Iowa Electronic Markets, because the computer knows who you are.

This is especially likely if you are betting not on the next prime minister, or most seats, but on something obscure: perhaps supporting an outsider in a constituency the bookmakers had not even thought in play. It is possible to finesse that by tramping round the shops and forking out a large number of small sums, but even that way head office gets wind eventually. This is a complicated battle of wits.

There will be NS readers who no doubt regard this entire article with horror, who share not just the original William Hill’s disdain for gambling on politics but a detestation for betting of all kinds. Some of them will be members of parliament. However, they are the real gamblers. Most of us would be terrified by the notion of subjecting our career and livelihood to continual monstering by the press and Twittersphere, interspersed with periodic revalidation by public whim.

Of course gambling can ruin the lives of those without the capacity for moderation, just as drinking can. But it is different for genuine punters. By that I don’t mean Lottery players, but people who aspire to make rational predictions about future outcomes, be it a horse race or a three-way marginal, and who back their judgement with affordable sums of money – and understand that betting is about honourable defeats as well as victories because it is a search for value, not certainties. For them it is a constant source of intellectual challenge and occasional delight. A hobby to help ward off boredom and dementia: more lasting than Candy Crush and FreeCell; more piquant than a crossword; and cheaper than golf.

The idea that the bookmakers must inevitably win has in fact never been less true. The days of the 10 per cent tax on every bet have gone; the internet provides instant price comparison sites; and hot competition from new entrants, especially the betting exchanges, has forced the companies to slim their once-obese profit margins.

And political betting has a particular appeal because the relevant data is so transparent. True, I would have saved myself some money if I had got inside Alan Johnson’s head and realised he appeared to be serious about not wanting to become leader of the Labour Party. But most of the time the information is out there and just needs to be collected, processed and understood. In racing, no student of form knows what a trainer might be up to; and no trainer knows for sure how his horse really feels. No football expert can accurately predict the day when Manchester City might just screw up against Burnley.

We aficionados all have our failures, heaven knows. But we can smile about our past triumphs, as over some long-ago night of passion. I was a fairly early Obama backer but Mike Smithson spotted him long before I did and backed him to be president at 50/1. My own moment of glory came in 1990, when I divined that Michael Heseltine would indeed topple Margaret Thatcher but then get punished by being deprived of the prize himself; therefore I knew – just knew – that the answer to the question simply had to be John Major, at 10/1. And I kept betting until Hills told me to get knotted.

I am relishing the 2015 election first and foremost because I care about my country and want it to be run by politicians who share my vision of its future; second because, for a journalist, it will be fascinating to write about; and third, because I hope that I might just have another moment of blinding insight to match the one I had 25 years ago. Which may be lucrative in a medium-sized way – and gloriously satisfying.

Matthew Engel is a columnist for the Financial Times and the occasional political betting columnist for the Racing Post. His latest book is “Engel’s England” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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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?