Friday, 9 November 2012

Dover Soul

Rowenna Davis writes:

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.

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