Blue Labour, Maurice Glasman and the fight for the "People's Port"

Glasman's Blue Labour movement has found a cause in the fight to stop the Port of Dover being privatised.

There are no bluebirds. Pull into Dover, and it’s the geography and the poverty that hits you. The white cliffs sit like quarried giants against a dirty paper sky. They guard a sea that stretches moodily over the southern edge of England. For generations Dover has been an industrial power base; now a few pale kids work on the minimum wage at Costa Coffee. Others loiter around, out of work and out of hope. A southern town with northern levels of poverty.

Right now Dover is also the site of a battle. The local community is fighting to stop the privatisation of the town’s historic port. Lord Maurice Glasman, godfather of the Blue Labour movement, has been talking wide-eyed about this campaign to anyone who will listen.

“The port could be endowed in perpetuity to the people of Dover on behalf of the nation,” Glasman tells me. “It’s a story about Labour helping workers and exports. About Labour winning in the south. About nationhood and building the common good. It’s everything Blue Labour stands for.”

At one time, getting a job with the Dover Harbour Board, which has run the port since 1606, was a great prize. They paid decent wages and guaranteed job stability. The pretty regency town flourished through trade, providing a beacon in the darkest economic times. The Board saw itself as part of the town, providing Christmas decorations and bringing firewood to workers’ families in winter. But over the last ten years, all that’s changed.

Taking a seat in the freezing station coffee shop, two locals have come to meet me. John Heron used to work as a security guard at the port before he was “outsourced”. The other has friends who still work for the Harbour Board, but doesn’t want to give his name. Employees have already been chastised for talking to the press.

“It’s been a very stressful time,” he says. “Our backs are up against the wall. They [the Harbour Board] make it sound like this is the only way – that it’s all hopeless – but we know it’s not.”

Over the last eleven years these workers have watched the number of people employed drop from over 800 to 310. They say safety standards have slipped and quality has suffered as agency workers have replaced those with experience. Heron says this was part of a deliberate strategy by the Harbour Board’s chair, Bob Goldfield, who he believes was brought in to run the port down. After all, a port with fewer fixed contracts is more attractive to foreign buyers.

“He [Goldfield] outsourced everyone apart from his cronies. Workers were repopulated from people outside Dover who didn’t care about the community… G4S and others were re-employing others on zero hour contracts. The economic instability is hollowing out the community.”

As he speaks he points to the young guy serving coffee in the cold.

“Ten years ago he would have worked for the Harbour Board on a living wage,” he says, “It’s not just us we’re fighting for.”

As for Goldfield, he dismisses these allegations as  “paranoid”. He says it became clear that privatisation was the best option only after his appointment, because the port was haemorrhaging money and unable to borrow. Under his watch, he says, the port has finally begun to turn around:

“We were over-manned and over staffed. It’s absolute nonsense to say that standards have slipped . . . I’m not in the business to asset strip, I’m here to grow. That’s why I want privatisation.”

But campaigners fear that foreign owners will have no incentive to care about the town. If privatisation goes ahead, the sole purpose of the port will be to maximise profit for shareholders. They say this won’t just damage local workers, it will also hurt the ferry companies and cargo operators who use the port, who will almost certainly be given higher tariffs without negotiation.

Campaigners are now pushing for their own radical solution. The Dover People’s Port campaign wants to transfer the whole port into community ownership as part of a community land trust. A board of local members – including the local MP, councillors and workers – has already sold over a thousand shares in this venture at £10 each. They’ve approached capital markets, who say they will lend them £200m for the project subject to due diligence. Locals backed community ownership in a referendum last year by 98 per cent.

For Glasman, whose Blue Labour agenda is critical of blanket economic liberalism and believes in more democratic forms of ownership, this campaign is perfect. Over the last year, he has regularly been getting on the train to meet the key players, strategise and give talks about the history of Dover. Patrick MacFarlane, one of Blue Labour’s earliest adherents, gave up his summer to work on the campaign. Although Glasman is not by any means the chief leader of the People’s Port, locals describe him as a “tent pole figure” who has given them hope against great authority.

“He’s helping us create a whole new vocabulary between commerce and community,” says Heron, “He brings people in and shows them another way.”

Sadly not everyone feels this way. Clair Hawkins, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Dover, says that Glasman’s involvement has “not been without its challenges” for the local party. She says she is “totally against” privatisation but has some concerns that a People’s Port could leave the community with too much debt.

The fact that the sitting Conservative MP, Charlie Elphicke, has helped lead plans for the People’s Port complicates matters even further. In true Blue Labour style, Glasman can get people’s backs up by finding more in common with One Nation Tories than members of his own party. For this, he remains unapologetic:

“Labour has to restore trust with ordinary people in the south, and that means showing that we can genuinely represent a future that can work . . . there is an alternative between nationalisation and privatisation that is Labour, and it’s called the People’s Port.”

Right now the fight is continuing. The Dover Harbour Board has rejected the community’s plans, but campaigners are keeping up pressure on the government who are about to make the final decision. It’s clear this isn’t just a decision for Dover and its people. It’s a fight for what kind of capitalism we want to embrace – whether we are going to let globalisation go unchallenged or find ways to create more democratic forms of ownership. It’s also a battle for the heart of the Labour party, which needs to pick a side. Let’s see what the tide brings in.

The Port of Dover. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”