Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, with his family. Photograph: Corbis
Show Hide image

Half-echoes of the past

Blue Labour is conservative, but about a society that no longer exists – or never existed. Ed Miliband should be wary of this faction and instead forge an alliance that will win back aspirational voters in the south.

The Labour Party, founded in 1900, has been in existence for 112 years. But there have been Labour governments for just 32 of those years; for another eight years, Labour participated in wartime national unity governments. During the remaining 72 years, it was in opposition. Why has so much of Labour’s existence been spent in opposition? There are three reasons.

The first is factionalism. After the election defeats of 1951 and 1979, Labour was rent by fratricidal disputes between left and right – between the Bevanites and the leadership after 1951 and between the Bennites and the leadership after 1979. The party seemed more anxious to have a dialogue with itself than a dialogue with the British people, who decided, both in the 1950s and in the 1980s, to confirm Labour’s status as a party of opposition.

After the defeat of 1970, too, Labour threatened to descend into factionalism, but Harold Wilson skilfully contained it. Even so, the party returned to power in March 1974 through the vagaries of the electoral system, as opposed to any merits of its own. Between 1970 and the general election of February 1974, Labour lost 6 per cent of the vote – one-seventh of its support – the largest fall in votes of any opposition party in Britain until, in 1983, Michael Foot succeeded in doing even worse.

Labour’s defeat in 2010 was worse than those of 1951, 1970 or 1979. Indeed, in terms of percentage of the vote, Labour did worse in 2010 than at any time since it became a mass party except for 1983. Yet there have been no renewed outbreaks of factionalism, no divisions between left and right. The party has shown a remarkable degree of unity. There have been no latter-day equivalents of the Bevanites or the Bennites. That, no doubt, owes much to Ed Miliband’s empathetic and consensual style. It is an unnoticed achievement.

The second reason for Labour’s long years in opposition is that it has, since 1918, seen itself as the sole party of the left, and has been intolerant of competition from other claim ants. In the 1920s, it was more eager to eliminate the Liberals than to seek a progressive alliance with them, an alliance that might well have undermined Conservative dominance. Some Labour leaders actually preferred the Conservatives to the Liberals. Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first prime minister, declared in 1924 that he “could get on with the Tories. They differed at times openly then forgot all about it and shook hands. They were gentlemen but the Liberals were cads.”

In the 1930s, the Labour leadership stood firmly against a Popular Front, an alliance with Liberals and anti-appeasement Conservatives which might have brought about a change of government policy. Indeed, Labour succeeded in its aim of driving out the Liberals as a third party, but the price was a long period of Conservative hegemony, and the 20th century became the Conservative century even though there may well have been a progressive majority among the voters for much of the period.

Liberal friends

In the 1980s the third force revived – first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, then the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s instincts remained the same: to regard the third force as a competitor rather than a potential ally. Tony Blair was a great exception. The Ashdown diaries show that he would have preferred a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to a single-party Labour majority. Had the majority in 1997 been smaller, Blair would almost certainly have sought coalition.

Gordon Brown also sought an alliance with the Liberal Democrats in 2007 after becoming prime minister, and suggested coalition to Menzies Campbell, the then Liberal Democrat leader. In 2010, after the election, he again offered coalition to the Liberal Democrats, saying that the moment had come to create the progressive alliance. But it was too late. Labour was too weak. In 1997, it had been too strong. It was never the right moment.

Here, too, Miliband can claim to have escaped the entrenched positions of the past. There are no precise details of what has transpired between him and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, but it is clear that a dialogue has begun and that Miliband does not regard all Liberal Democrats as the enemy. There is, after all, a powerful social-democrat tradition among the Liberal Democrats, one wing of which, including Cable, was in the SDP, a breakaway from Labour in 1981. Cable, indeed, began his political career as a Labour activist, and would probably have continued in the Labour Party had it not swung so far to the left after the election defeat of 1979.

Clearly, many Liberal Democrats were prepared to swallow their doubts about Conservative methods of curing the deficit and proposals for student fees in order to secure cherished measures of constitutional reform – reform of the voting system and a directly elected House of Lords. Now that it has become clear that these reforms are unattainable, they may well revert to their natural home on the left.

Miliband needs perhaps to make a sharper distinction between the Liberal Democrat leadership, or the Clegg-Laws faction of the leadership, whose ideological sympathies lie with the right, and the vast majority of Liberal Democrat members and voters, whose heart remains on the left. Franklin Roosevelt, after all, never attacked the Republicans, only the Republican leadership.

Yet Miliband’s flexibility towards the Liberal Democrats is a second achievement of Labour in opposition. He needs to become the leader of all progressive forces in Britain, not just the Labour Party.

There is a third reason why Labour has spent so much of its life in opposition. It is that its inclination in defeat is to retreat to its comfort zone, its core basis of support, such as that represented by the Blue Labour tendency, set up in 2009 by the academic Maurice Glasman, who was subsequently made a peer. The instincts of the Blue Labour faction are the same as those that led Labour to elect Foot as leader in 1980, and that lay behind its failure to pressure Attlee to retire after the 1951 defeat.

During the 1950s, Labour’s vote fell steadily from the 48.8 per cent peak of 1951 – achieved, paradoxically, in an election in which the party was defeated by the Conservatives. Not until after the third election defeat in 1959, however, did Hugh Gaitskell feel able to attempt to modernise the party by proposing the deletion of Clause Four from Labour’s 1918 constitution, which committed it to the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Even then, the party refused to support him, and it was left to Gaitskell’s successor, Harold Wilson, to modernise Labour by more surreptitious means, Wilson’s 1964-70 government being revisionist in practice if not in theory.

After the 1983 defeat, Neil Kinnock took over where Gaitskell had left off, but he was constrained by activists and his progress in modernising the party was painfully slow. It was not until 1992, after the fourth successive defeat, that Blair was able to take Labour by the scruff of the neck. Succeeding to the party leadership in 1994, he got rid of Clause Four and founded New Labour. There was just one Labour tradition that he hated, Blair told the 2006 party conference in his farewell speech – losing elections. Some in the party have never forgiven him for breaking that tradition.

Today also, there are siren voices saying that Labour should return to its comfort zone. For the essence of the Blue Labour faction is that the party should become more conservative, more respectful towards the supposed values of working-class communities and of working-class attitudes (some would say prejudices) on immigration and crime. The politics of nostalgia would be disastrous for the left, however, ideologically and electorally.

Blue Labour emphasises co-operatives, mutuals, friendly societies and more localised provision of public services. Never mind that it was because this very approach was insufficient that past Labour governments strengthened central government. It is fashionable to decry the state, but it is to the state, not the Salvation Army or the Co-op, that we turn when we find ourselves sick or out of work.

The truth is, as the recent TUC conference has shown, that there are no hermetically sealed working-class values. The values of the organised working class reflect wider social ethics. The calls at the conference for a general strike were an attempt to use the market power of organised labour to alter the policy of the democratically elected government. Miliband was right to distance Labour from it. But was the call for a strike any worse than the threat made by bankers and their like that any attack on their bonuses would lead to them taking their business abroad? If the rich and powerful can use their market power to threaten the government, why should organised labour not follow their lead?

Labour was founded more than a century ago to represent the organised working class, and perhaps its electoral rise up to 1951 and its decline thereafter can be correlated with the rise and fall of that class. Even so, the party’s central aim was to secure certain values, to transcend a society based on economic self-interest. Lab - our, Keir Hardie insisted, attacked a system not a class. If the values of community and fellowship had already been present in working-class communities, as some of the advocates of Blue Labour seem to imply, there would have been no need for a Labour Party. It was precisely because these values were not present that the party was founded.

The better life

There is a great danger in romantic mythologizing of working-class communities, a tendency sometimes practised by those who have never lived in them. Margaret Thatcher, who in the 1980s seemed to understand working-class aspirations better than Labour, declared that she had rarely met anyone from such communities who did not wish to escape from them.

Most working-class people want their children to have a better life than they had – a better education, better housing and a more fulfilling job – not to replicate their position in the “community”. Those aspirations received little expression at the TUC conference. They need to be expressed by the Labour Party. Indeed, it is only when Labour has been able to express such aspirations, as in 1945, 1966 or 1997, that it has been successful electorally.

Blue Labour, by contrast, is conservative, but conservative about a society that no longer exists, or perhaps never existed. It resembles Tory paternalism of the Baldwin-Macmillan variety; or perhaps the feudal socialism that Marx ridiculed in his Communist Manifesto as “half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future”.

Speak for the middle

In any case, the old-style working class is not Labour’s problem. Even in 2010, the Conservatives were unable to win a single seat in any of the large cities of the Midlands or the north – Birmingham, Bradford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield, while the Liberal Democrats won just six. In fact, one reason why the remnants of the working class have so little political leverage is that they are largely concentrated in safe Labour seats. The best way to strengthen the electoral influence of the working class would be to reform the electoral system so as to eliminate the safe seat.

But Labour’s electoral problem lies elsewhere. It lies, as in the 1980s, in its failure to retain the allegiance of aspirational voters in the south of England. South of the Severn-Wash line outside London, the party holds just ten out of 197 seats. It has no MPs at all in Cornwall, Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire or Here fordshire. The BBC’s electoral analyst David Cowling was right, therefore, to describe the outcome in 2010 as “the dismem - bering of New Labour’s 1997 electoral triumph”. Labour must seek to reassemble that triumphant coalition, not retreat to the safety of its heartland.

Labour’s problem is not the working class but the southern working class, the most aspirational segment of the working class. Indeed, psephological studies have shown that a northern middle-class voter is more likely to vote Labour than a southern working-class voter. Blue Labour would do little to win back these lost voters.

Ed Miliband has kept Labour away from its comfort zone and his call to defend the “squeezed middle” resonates with many voters. However, he has not yet allied the party firmly enough with the aspirations of voters in the south of England; and he has still to spell out his programme for responsible capitalism, taming the markets, rebalancing the economy and achieving greater fairness at a time when public spending will be constrained. Perhaps his greatest difficulty is that most voters find it difficult to identify with him, to “place” him; and, in so far as they do place him, it is as a north London intellectual, remote from their concerns. His background is not his fault any more than David Cameron’s is, but he needs to transcend it.

Wilson faced a similar problem. Before becoming Labour leader, he had been associated in the public mind with the bureaucratic restrictions necessary after the war and a dry, impersonal, economic approach to politics. To overcome his image problem, he enlisted advisers such as the journalist Joe Haines and Albert Murray, the MP for Gravesend, who could supply what he lacked. Wilson rapidly reinvented himself as a man of the people.

Miliband needs to do the same. He could begin by avoiding terms such as “predator capitalism” and “predistribution”, which may resonate with readers of the New Statesman, but lend themselves to ridicule elsewhere. He needs to become the natural spokesman of Middle England, the “squeezed middle” whose aspirations he has sought to champion.

Democracy, it is often said, is government by explanation, and the crucial electoral battleground is that of public opinion. Governments can transform opinion by acting. Oppositions can transform opinion only by speeches, by teaching. For many years, the left in Britain has lacked a teacher. The task for Ed Miliband is to show that he can be as formidable a teacher for the left as Thatcher was for the right.

Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History, King’s College London. His books include “The Coalition and the Constitution” (Hart, £20), published last year.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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?