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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.