Raining Stones III: Political Sightings

By Hilary Wainwright

By way of introduction: I watched Raining Stones through the eyes of a socialist of the kind who might well have been doing research about the Langley estate on which the film is set. I would have begun the research thinking that it was the tenants’ association that would be the focus for any resistance to the compounded social problems pressing on local people in recent years.

As I watched the story of Bob’s struggle for the money to buy his daughter her Communion gear, sitting alongside people from Langley at the Manchester Odeon, I realised that I was no longer quite sure how people were fighting back. As a determined activist, I had become a little hazy about how to get from here to socialism.

Watching the film, my sense of uncertainty as to feasible political strategies was both deepened and clarified by an overwhelming sense of the gulf between political activists and working class people engaged in private struggles for dignity – a gulf of language, of horizon and goal, of daily relationships, of what matters most.

Ken Loach’s film was also a powerful polemic against those whose response to these uncertainties is to accommodate to a market-driven society. Such people tend to turn their eyes away from people living in areas like Langley, working- class estates now segregated, out of view in outlying districts of all our major cities.

This segregation is not only a matter of political geography. It is also a matter of political culture – the thick, grey, cultural clouds that emanate from the Labour and Communist parties retreating defensively from representing the people battered by the market, lest fighting with them scares off those who have managed to find a market niche.

Raining Stones broke through these clouds. My first response was relief and excitement that such a culture shock was going to reach such a wide audience. But perhaps the most distinctive feature of the film was that it illustrated people’s capacity and determination to struggle for dignity. It also indicated that though this individual courage and ingenuity might in the short term make for some happy endings, it was not, in itself, enough for long-term change. In the film, Coleen walked down the isle like a princess, but the day after the Communion tea, Bob and Anne will have no money, Bob and Tommy no job, and new loan sharks will be on the make.

The film demonstrates, almost in passing because it was so self-evident, the irrelevance of the official Labour Party. The Labour Councillor, with his well-dressed, well-fed demeanour, walks out on a tenant demanding help, insisting that he has ‘to go to a meeting’, saying, without sincerity, that he would ‘see to it’.

The real complexity comes to the fore in the uneasy combination of warmth and disconnection between Jimmy’s vague hopes for secular collective action and Bob’s struggle for his daughter Coleen’s communion dress. As the film develops, Coleen’s dress does indeed become a focal point of all the characteristics of a social struggle. For example, the determination to buy it expresses a sense of pride connecting history with the future; it involves a refusal to compromise, a determination to remain above the line of dignity; it involves co-operation and solidarity through friendship; it produces great and hilarious ingenuity and creativity, cheek and bravery, as well as major blunders.

Yet somehow, as the film conveys, all this energy is turned in on the individual and the family. A sign, perhaps, of how deeply and unconsciously the new Conservative culture has bitten, aided by certain pre-existing features of working-class life, like the influence of the Catholic Church with its doctrine of individual guilt.

How can the will and capacity to be self-determining in co-operation with others, that was so evident in the leading characters of Raining Stones, become the source of a power for social change?

The film gives some clues that point towards some form of collective self-help. Credit unions, food co-ops, women’s centres are some of the forms that this is taking on estates in parts of Manchester, Bolton and Salford for instance. Raining Stones convinced me that anyone serious about renewal will need to develop a real attentiveness to the ways in which people are presently struggling for dignity. The left needs self-consciously to adopt a new approach to knowledge, an approach which has a strong appreciation of the innovation and the insights which come from experience, which cannot easily be written down in resolutions and programmes.

In the 90s, a film such as Raining Stones, and the debate it is stimulating provide the opportunity for an interaction between theory and experience. And this, I think, is also a key to overcoming the present gulf between those who are self-consciously part of the ‘left’ and the large numbers of people struggling daily to protect themselves and their neighbours against a predatory market economy.

Hilary Wainwright’s new book, Arguments for a New Left: Answering the Free Market Right, is published by Blackwells.