These labourers provide a cheap supply of ready manpower. Photograph: Getty Images
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Cheap, and far from free: The migrant army building Britain

Revealed: how job restrictions have left Romanian and Bulgarian construction workers underpaid and vulnerable to exploitation.

The men gather in the shadow of the Wickes hardware store, looking out for the odd jobs that keep them in the UK and for the police that periodically moves them along.
    
As day labourers on the margins of Britain’s sprawling construction sector, they provide a cheap supply of ready manpower, useful yet often unwelcome.

Their presence provokes frequent complaints from the residents of Seven Sisters, a north London neighbourhood where the cafés offer a greasy “builder’s breakfast” for less than five pounds.

With no offices or agencies supporting them, the day labourers crowd the pavement and advertise their trade through their attire – grubby tracksuits spattered with paint and plaster.

When potential clients pull up, they haggle over rates and hitch rides. When the police show up, they run.

Across the road on a sunny July morning, Jarek collects his groceries and stops for a chat with some friends.

“Illegal people,” is how he describes the 30 or so men waiting outside Wickes. Like them, Jarek is an immigrant. Unlike them, he comes from Poland and does not panic when he sees the police.

He too is a builder, but he does not do business on the pavement outside Wickes. Instead, he travels on a moped fitted with a toolbox, dispensing glossy flyers advertising “cheap and reliable contractor services” in ungrammatical English.

Jarek is one of around a million workers who moved to the UK as a result of the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe in 2004. The scale of the migration, most of it from Poland, prompted a backlash against the British politicians who had failed to anticipate it.

The day labourers are mostly Romanians and Bulgarians, and relative newcomers to the UK. They arrived after 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria – the so-called A2 countries – joined the EU.

Despite Jarek’s suspicions, the men’s presence in Britain, or indeed outside Wickes, is not in itself illegal.    

All that separates him from the newcomers is a web of restrictions, designed to deny A2 migrants the many advantages that helped Jarek and his compatriots establish themselves in the UK.

Free to stay but not free to work, the Romanians and Bulgarians fulfil a narrow function – meeting Britain’s need for underpaid and unprotected labour.

Nervous and suspicious

The construction sector accounts for more than 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP. It is the centrepiece of the government’s plan to revive the struggling economy, and the recipient of regular subsidies and stimuli.

Critics say the government’s restrictions on A2 workers have benefitted the construction sector by boosting the ranks of poorly paid and loosely regulated labourers. They accuse Britain of trying to build its way out of a double-dip recession by undercutting pay and conditions for other, relatively well-established, workers.

A Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) investigation shows that A2 workers are generally prepared to work for lower wages and in worse conditions than others in the construction industry. Many interviewees spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not wish to attract the attention of the authorities.

Unions and safety officials agree that the A2 workers’ immigration status has driven them into the highly casual end of the building trade, where procedures are more likely to be ignored and injuries and grievances are less likely to be reported.

The UK government justifies its restrictions, arguing that they have protected the British workforce by preventing another surge of immigration of the scale that brought Jarek to the country.

Statistics from the Department of Work and Pensions show that around 210,000 Romanians and Bulgarians have received a National Insurance (NI) number since their countries joined the EU five years ago. This figure offers a very rough indication of how many migrants from these countries may be working in Britain, without taking into account those working illegally and those who have since returned home.

By comparison, some 640,000 Poles have received NI numbers over the last five years, from the total of more than a million over the last decade.

Large construction guilds, meanwhile, insist that their members are bound by law to ensure working conditions are safe and fair. When the rules are broken, they say, the migrants are often complicit.

Some migrants interviewed by BIRN seemed to confirm this, saying they worked in the grey economy to avoid taxes. But as many are underpaid, the incentive for doing so is also greater.

If caught working illegally, the migrants face a fine of up to £1,000 pounds (about €1,300) and a possible prison term.

However, the day labourers in front of Wickes are in little danger of being busted, as they can always claim that they intend to declare any earnings.

Their nervousness around the police stems less from a genuine fear of prosecution than from a general suspicion of the state.

Facing severe restrictions in the job market, they have been funnelled towards a zone where there is no clear distinction between the lawful and unlawful, or between the exploitative and the cost-effective.

“The police have asked me for ID… Sometimes they say you can stay, sometimes they make you leave,’’ says a middle-aged day labourer from Bulgaria who gave his name as Neven. “I stay,’’ he adds. “What are the police going to do to me?’’

 

Numbers game

Upon arrival in the UK, all foreigners in search of work are expected to apply for an NI number.

The number is a prerequisite for anyone seeking legitimate long-term employment. It is effectively the code upon which the state builds each individual’s record of taxes, pensions and benefits.

When Jarek came to Britain in 2004, Poles like him had little difficulty acquiring an NI number. But by the time Neven migrated five years later, Romanians and Bulgarians were finding it harder to register.

A2 nationals are automatically allocated NI numbers only if they have travelled to Britain on a type of work permit that is issued with direct offers of employment.

However, these migrants are in a minority. Most Romanians and Bulgarians travel to the UK without work permits or any firm promise of employment.

Eager to start earning, they gravitate towards the construction and hospitality sectors, where they can eventually skirt the need for a work permit by registering as self-employed.

Migrants who fail to prove they are self-employed, and therefore fail to get an NI number, often end up on the margins of these sectors, getting paid cash-in-hand for casual jobs that require minimal paperwork.

Bulgarian and Romanian embassy officials in London told BIRN that their citizens were finding it harder to get an NI number, in some cases logging five unsuccessful attempts. Many of the day labourers outside the Wickes at Seven Sisters fit this category.

“No money, no job in Bulgaria,” said a 45-year-old migrant who did not give his name. He said he had twice applied for an NI number, and had been refused both times. He had not found work for two months and was living off his savings.

"Smaller sites, bigger risks"

Undocumented workers are more likely to be seriously injured on the job, according to trade unions and safety experts.

A young Romanian man, whose name has been withheld on the advice of his lawyer, told BIRN he had been electrocuted while operating a jackhammer at a site in London. “I don’t remember much,” he said. “There was smoke. My arm was burned.”

The man had been working in Britain without an NI number and had learned about the job from a friend. He says he was not asked to provide any documents or sign any contracts before starting work, and was paid cash-in-hand. Although he received some basic safety instructions, he says he had trouble following them because of his poor English.

Construction unions estimate that some 80 per cent of workplace accidents go unreported. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK watchdog that monitors safety in the workplace, does not keep any data recording the nationality of injured workers.

However, it acknowledges that migrant workers are more exposed to accidents and less likely to report them, even though they cannot be deported or penalised for doing so.

Richard Boland, the HSE’s head of operations for construction in southern England, says “the vulnerability that comes with having restrictions on when and where you can work” can drive builders to sites where the safety rules are not enforced.

HSE’s inspectors are now shifting their focus away from the large firms towards smaller sites because the latter, he says, are more likely to ignore standards and to employ relatively inexperienced migrant workers.

"Silent accidents"

Romanian and Bulgarian workers who manage to acquire an NI number still face curbs that did not trouble an earlier generation of immigrants from the EU.

Most jobs in construction are arranged through specialist employment agencies, which are typically small companies with a record for hiring from within a particular immigrant community.

These agencies act as subcontractors for bigger firms, delivering casual labour to large sites at short notice and handling much of the associated paperwork.

According to lawyers and labour experts, the A2 workers hired by such agencies are less likely to complain of dangerous conditions and low wages. Many fear being blacklisted in an economy where their options for employment are already circumscribed.

Remus Robu, a paralegal with UK law firm Levenes, often handles claims arising from accidents involving A2 workers. “Unfortunately, there are people who do lose their job when they file for compensation,” he said.

The Romanian owner of a small building company, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the existence of an informal blacklist for workers who were regarded as troublesome. But, he said, this was no different to the system of references shared by employers in other industries.

“Would you hire back somebody who had filed a claim against you?’’ he said.

The owner also told BIRN that he had persuaded a worker against reporting an accident that had led to a broken leg. He said he had paid the injured man a full wage throughout his time in recovery, and guaranteed him further employment when he was fit again.

“He agreed not to pursue a claim against me because I have a good relationship with my workers,” the owner said.

According to the HSE, any accident that leads to a broken leg has to be reported under UK law. If an employer is found to be at fault, lawyers say a worker can expect to receive between £6,000 and £36,000, depending on the severity of the injury.

Small construction firms are usually keen to avoid having claims brought against them, as these can hamper their ability to secure fresh contracts.

"Informal economy"

As well as discouraging complaints over conditions, employment agencies often pay A2 migrants a lower wage than other workers.

Many agencies deduct a form of commission from workers’ pay packets. In some cases, a payroll company – often linked to the agency – will charge an additional “admin” fee for processing salaries.

The A2 migrants have no safeguards against these cuts to their earnings. As self-employed workers, they are not eligible for the UK’s minimum wage, currently set at just over six pounds an hour.

Moreover, although technically expected to pay their own taxes, self-employed labourers are automatically taxed at source at a rate of 20 per cent, under a government scheme that applies to the construction sector alone.

The construction workers’ union, UCATT, has called for the scheme to be scrapped, saying it facilitates a form of bogus self-employment. Britain’s opposition Labour party also recently said it would review the scheme.

However, an official from the UK’s largest construction trade association said the workers in this category deserved no more sympathy than their employers for undermining their “legitimate competitors”.

“Both parties gain from effectively breaking the law and, as such, those A2s who collude in false self-employment cannot be portrayed as innocent victims,” says Peter O’ Connell, a policy manager with the Federation of Master Builders.

Stephen Ratcliffe, director of the UK Contractors Groups, a guild representing the country’s top construction firms, said criminal proceedings should be used against the “informal economy” where companies flout tax, employment and safety laws.

Both O’Connell and Ratcliffe stressed that the members of their organisations abide fully by the law.

The UK’s main trade body for employment agencies, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, declined to comment despite several requests from BIRN.

Given the ways in which working through employment agencies can eat into their earnings, many A2 workers decide to opt out of the system.

The day labourers outside the Wickes superstore in Seven Sisters include some who have an NI number but choose not to use it.

A Romanian man, who refused to give his name, says he has been in the UK for six years and regularly pays his taxes and contributions to the state.

But he supplements his official income by working cash-in-hand. “People hire me to paint their house. If they ask for an invoice, I can issue one. Otherwise, I don’t.”

“I’m done working with the agencies,” he adds. “They take too much of your money.”

Most of the men outside Wickes said they expected to earn around £50 (€60) a day. By comparison, a self-employed Romanian recruited legally through an employment agency for marshalling traffic at a building site, can expect to earn £80 (€100) per day. In other words, he will be paid only £30 (€40) more than the day labourers, out of which he must fund further tax and NI contributions.

Recruitment agencies say they pay the same wage, regardless of nationality. However, unions say that British and Polish workers can expect to be paid £9-10 per hour for jobs that will be offered to A2 workers for £5-6 per hour.

As they do not face any working restrictions, Polish and British workers are in a better position to negotiate their rates or simply take better jobs in other sectors. Romanians and Bulgarians are more likely to go with what they are offered, as they have fewer options on the job market.

"Good for business"

According to its critics, the current policy on A2 workers has created a system that deprives the state of tax revenues, undercuts British labour and leaves foreigners open to exploitation.

Labour MP Jim Sheridan has argued for tighter regulation of the employment agencies in the construction sector, along the lines of the licensing of agricultural gangmasters.

Others call for reducing self-employment in the sector by making construction firms hire more workers directly. However, this would also shift the burden for NI contributions – nearly 14 per cent of the wage bill – on to the employers.

UCATT convenor Dave Allen admits this is unlikely to happen, as it would leave the big firms with smaller budgets. “The government knows that if everybody was directly employed, the economy might suffer,” he says.

Bridget Anderson, deputy director and senior research fellow at Oxford University’s migration think-tank COMPAS, says the government should, at the very least, enforce the minimum wage regulations on all workers, British and foreign, self-employed or not.

She says the rhetoric about protecting British jobs was misleading: the curbs had undermined the established workforce while benefitting businesses by giving them a more pliant workforce.

“The more you focus on immigration control, the more you introduce transitional arrangements – the more you create a labour force that is actually more desirable for employers,” she said.

EU members cannot prevent the citizens of other member states from travelling to their countries for work. They can only impose “transitional controls” of the kind currently in place in the UK against Romanians and Bulgarians.

The UK is just one of several EU states that have imposed restrictions on A2 workers. Similar restrictions exist in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

By law, the curbs must be lifted by January 2014. However, a statement issued by the UK Border Agency last year confirmed it would apply similar “transitional restrictions” on all new EU member states to ensure that “migration benefits the UK and does not adversely impact our labour market’’.

The UK’s Border Agency, the immigration minister, and the Department for Work and Pensions all declined to be interviewed for this article.

Sorana Stanescu is a Bucharest-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. All photographs from Getty Images.

Sorana Stanescu is a Bucharest-based journalist.

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?