The Glasman cometh

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.”

Trust us

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)

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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.