Hundreds of jobs are axed by Ford, and we're letting them get away with it

Our current industrial strategy is allowing the company to undermine public trust.

Over 1,400 families are still in shock. Ford’s decision to close plants in Southampton and Dagenham left workers blindsided after almost a century of UK production. At a time of recession, there is a deep concern for the economic wellbeing and material welfare of these workers, as well as many more subcontractors and suppliers. These quality jobs will no longer be available for young Brits. Another nail in the coffin for British manufacturing. The makers are marching straight out of the country.

We are told that it’s inevitable. Of course Ford is now focusing its operations in Turkey. In a brave new world of global competition, this is how we operate. Automobile companies are as cold and sharp as the steel they manufacture; ready to cut and shift production at a moment’s notice. Sympathy is unaffordable. Responsibility and relationship to people and place is naïve. If we want to win the economic war, workers may be collateral damage. The bottom line dictates the show.

But this narrative has masked the deeper failings of Ford and of government. In a meeting earlier this week in Westminster, a little-attended parliamentary debate revealed what is really happening. MPs of all sides dismissed Ford’s behaviour as “shoddy” and “grubby”. The failings of the government’s industrial strategy began to be exposed, and the consequences for the British taxpayer revealed. Three key questions strike to the heart of the problem.

First, why were ministers kept in the dark about Ford’s decision? The business secretary Vince Cable is on record saying he knew nothing about the company's decision to close the plant until just a few days before it was announced. Despite the fact that ministers had 12 meetings with Ford since taking office, Michael Fallon MP said there was “no opportunity to discuss (closures) as we would have liked.”

MPs at a local level went further, claiming they were actively misled by Ford. Alan Whitehead, MP for Southampton Test, said he had received “cast iron” guarantees that local production would continue. Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, said workers were “blindsided” by the decision. Chris Huhne, MP for Eastleigh, called for the minutes of all meetings with Ford to be published from 2008, questioning whether the company gave false impressions of growth to benefit from cheap government loans. John Denham, MP for Southampton Itchen, said that the last communication he had with John Fleming - now head of global manufacturing at Ford - was an email saying that they were planning to increase operations in Southampton.

“Reputations are hard won and easily lost,” says Denham, “I’m sorry to say it will be a long time before MPs will be able to sit down with Ford representatives at the other side of the table and believe they will keep their word.”

Ford insisted they didn’t make their final decision until 19 October – less than a week before ministers were informed - but that doesn’t explain previous assurances.

Second question. Why are British taxpayers supporting Ford’s new line of vehicles outside of the UK? This summer, the European Investment Bank (EIB) gave Ford a cheap £80m loan to develop a new line of transit vans, previously assembled in the UK, in Kocaeli. We part fund the EIB, and our chancellor George Osborne sits on its board. Conservatives themselves were raising concerns about this, including the MP for Romsey and Southampton North, Caroline Nokes:

“Ford globally made $2.2bn profit last year. Why does it need cheap loans to subsidise it to export jobs from the UK to outside the EU?”

Of course Turkey has lower production costs, and its labour costs are one third of those here. But it’s one thing to say it’s cheaper to do business abroad, and quite another to expect British taxpayers to pay for it.

The problems don’t end there. Just a few days before Ford’s announcement, the British people gave some £10m to the company to help it develop a new series of diesel engines here in the UK. This money was awarded by the Regional Growth Fund (RGF), which is chaired by none other than Michael Heseltine – the man recently charged for producing a report for the government on growth. So why didn’t we make this grant contingent on Ford maintaining the rest of its operations here in the UK?

“There is no sense of engagement across the board” says Denham, who called on both the EIB and the RGF to be subject to review. Another MP added, “Ministers have shown themselves to be incapable… you can’t rebalance growth by tossing a few grants here and there.”

And a final bonus question. Given the pain, why aren’t workers going out on strike? Employees are desperately unhappy, but union members say many don’t speak out because they have been given generous pay offs, which include an extra £20,000 “bonus” for not going on strike. When it comes to a definite chance of a pay off verses a small chance of saving your job, most workers are understandably putting their families first. This is obviously less helpful for all those subcontractors on site, who aren’t receiving any redundancy package from Ford.

Ford are keen to emphasise that they are pursuing voluntary redundancies and relocating workers wherever possible. Workers in Dangenham can take some comfort that a new diesel engine is being developed there, but in general Ford say that they are suffering from over capacity.

Nobody disputes that Britain has to adapt to a changing world. But the way Ford is operating now is not good for business. The company has undermined public trust, and our current industrial strategy has let them get away with it. Ford could improve its brand by celebrating production here in Britain. European consumers would be more likely to buy from a company known for providing good jobs, worker representation and apprenticeships here in Europe. Initiatives like this wouldn’t just be good for business, it might also give those struggling workers and their families another chance.

Ford will be closing plants in Southampton and Dagenham next year. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.