Pull in to Dover by train and it’s the geography that hits you first, the white cliffs watching over a sea that stretches moodily around southern England. Then it’s the poverty. 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. A southern town with northern levels of deprivation.
Right now Dover is also the site of a battle – the 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 the Dover campaign to anyone who will listen. He’s got itchy sitting in the fusty second chamber, but this dispute has given him a chance to put his philosophy into action.
“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 building the common good. It’s everything Blue Labour stands for.”
At one time, a job with the Dover Harbour Board, which has run the port since 1606, was a great prize. It paid decent wages and guaranteed job stability. In the Regency, the pretty town flourished through trade and the board saw itself as part of the community, providing Christmas decorations and bringing firewood to workers’ families in winter. In the past decade, all that has changed.
At 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 his job was “outsourced”. The other has friends who still work for the harbour board, but doesn’t want to give his name. Employees have 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 past 11 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 claims that the harbour board’s chief executive, Bob Goldfield, was brought in to run the port down. After all, a port with fewer fixed contracts is more attractive to foreign buyers.
Goldfield 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. “We were overmanned and overstaffed. 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 activists are pushing for their own solution. The Dover People’s Port campaign wants to transfer the whole port into a community land trust. A board of local members – including the town’s MP, councillors and workers – has already sold over 1,000 shares in the venture at £10 each.
The board has approached the capital markets, which say they will lend it £200m for the project, subject to due diligence. Ninetyeight per cent of residents backed the plan in a referendum last year.
For Glasman, whose Blue Labour agenda is critical of blanket economic liberalism and who believes in more democratic forms of ownership, this campaign is perfect. Over the past year, he has been getting on the train to meet the leading players, to strategise and to give talks about the history of Dover.
“He’s helping us create a whole new vocabulary between commerce and community,” Heron says. “He brings people in and shows them another way.”
Yet 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 concerns that a people’s port could leave the community with too much debt.
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 with members of his own party. For this, he remains unapologetic.
“Labour has to restore trust with ordinary people in the south,” he says, “and that means showing that we can genuinely represent a future that can work . . . There is an alternative between nationalisation and privatisation, and it’s called the People’s Port.”
The fight is continuing. Dover Harbour Board has rejected the people’s plans but campaigners are keeping up the pressure on the government, which is about to make the final decision.
It’s clear it isn’t just a decision for Dover and its people. It is a fight for what kind of capitalism we want to embrace –whether we are to let globalisation go unchallenged, or find ways to create more democratic forms of ownership. It is also a battle for the heart of the Labour Party, which needs to pick a side. Let’s see what the tide brings in.
Rowenna Davis is the author of “Tangled Up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour’s Soul” (Ruskin Publishing, £8.99)