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

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David Cameron's speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.