BPA Dispatches from Labour Party Conference 2018

The BPA are attending Party Conferences this year and Policy Manager Mark Simmonds was with Labour in Liverpool this week following the developments.

Talk of a second referendum is dominating the headlines at Labour Conference this week, but on the fringes and behind the protests and set-piece events there was plenty of other discussions of interest to ports.

The BPA kicked off by joining Maritime UK’s lunch with former ship broker and Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Barry Gardiner, as well as a number of shadow Ministers and Labour MPs. Mr Gardiner gave a frank assessment of the challenges and opportunities arising from Brexit for the sector. The perils of having lunch on a boat soon became apparent with several gravy spillages lightening the mood ahead of some lively discussions on the growing likelihood of a ‘no deal’ EU exit, the Maritime industrial strategy sector deal bid, port connectivity, the profile of the ports sector, and Labour’s Build it in Britain campaign. The campaign is seeking to award more public sector contracts to British shipyards, amongst other things, and was introduced by Glasgow MP Paul Sweeney, who is a Shadow Scotland Minister in Westminster. We were pleased to have the opportunity to also speak to the shadow Ministers for Wales and Skills.

Whilst the overall ‘buzz’ of conference seemed a little dimmed this year, away from the conference floor there was no shortage of packed fringe events and discussions. As well as Brexit and messages on social justice, there was also a strong general theme about how Labour is now preparing for Government and the message to business was: ‘engage’.

It was good to see that Transport for the North has included ports and port connectivity in their fringe panel with Shadow Transport Minister Rachael Maskell MP. ABP Humber were represented on the panel and made the case for improved surface connectivity and noted the spending pressures on local Government impacting last mile investment. The impact of this on operators paying towards connectivity infrastructure was touched on but not in any detail.

The Port of Dover were joined by the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, Adam Marshall and Barry Gardiner MP for their fringe on the importance of trade and keeping freight moving after Brexit. Five years ago I would have been surprised to see people being turned away from a full room at a Labour Party event on trade and logistics, but Brexit has propelled it up the agenda. There were also other lively fringe sessions on transport and environment with direct points of interest for the ports sector. Air quality and environmental issues around congestion and development were regular themes of discussions. We are keen to be involved in the new Labour Planning Commission, launched on the first day of Conference. This was described as a ‘root and branch review of planning system’ and we are keen to ensure developers and ports are factored into its considerations.

At other events there was staunch opposition to what was described as the “job destroying” free ports concept at the RMT’s new maritime manifesto launch. An enjoyable event, I would diplomatically describe it as high-spirited with lots of frank and lively contributions from the floor. The main focus was firmly on seafarer pay and conditions and the ‘Save Our Seafarer 2020’ campaign. It was mentioned several times that the entire Labour shadow transport team are members of the RMT and Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald MP was present to speak of his priorities, including a Labour ‘Port Strategy’ were he to be part of a future Government.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s main announcement was that the Party would legislate for large companies to transfer shares into an “Inclusive Ownership Fund.” These shares will be held and managed collectively by a trade union and pay a dividend up to £500 a year (with anything over that going to the Treasury). Details were scarce but the Party will be consulting on this soon. Away from the conference floor, the Shadow Chancellor was also speaking at a variety of events including on Labour’s plans for an industrial strategy at an event organised by Unite; McDonnell believes tacking climate change should be a key focus of any industrial strategy. Mr McDonnell also reiterated his support for a new manifesto for labour law drawn up by the Institute for Employment Rights. At its heart, this is about shifting the focus of labour law from statutory minimum rights to collective bargaining, including sectoral bargaining.

I was pleased to see the Port of London’s drop-in event on the Thames Tideway project at the heart of the conference building receiving plenty of attention from politicians and delegates. The BPA also held our own drop-in event for MPs and Peers to speak to us about any port-related issue and will be following up once Parliament returns to Westminster.

Unsurprisingly, Brexit was absolutely everywhere with wall-to-wall coverage of the numerous protests, speeches and internal machinations. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer put a ‘people’s vote’ firmly back on the Labour Party’s plate and promised it would not necessarily exclude an option to remain in the EU, to the chagrin of some unions and those in the Leader’s office. Also grabbing headlines on the last day were calls from one backbench MP for a ‘general strike’ to force a general election. Labour’s leadership has this week sought to redirect talk of a referendum towards a general election instead. Meanwhile, in his address closing the conference, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn sought to focus on building an economy based on tackling emissions and climate change, sparking a ‘green jobs revolution’. That will mean “working with industry to change the way we build, and to train the workforce to retrofit homes and work in the industries we will build”, he said.

Mark will be reviewing the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham next week, followed by the SNP Conference in Glasgow.