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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide