“Save Shipbuilding” demo, 14th December

This is just a very quick follow-up to the march today from the Dockyard to the Guildhall, and the rally that followed it.

It was organised by the Unite union, and there were the usual Socialist Worker placards in evidence.  That’s fine with me, I think in these times of danger and peril, some of the usual parochial arguments can be set aside for a while.  Hell, I may well turn up in a paper somewhere waving a Unite flag, and I am certainly no admirer of Len McCluskey.  I’d rather wave a flag and make the demo look good for the cameras than argue over how many members of the Falkirk Labour Party can dance on the point of a pin.

But there was a strange incident as I walked up to the demo.  I thought I was late, as it had been advertised for an 11am start, and it was already 11.20 as I hurried up Kent St in Portsea.  Imagine my amazement to see Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson heading away from the demo, talking on his phone.

“It isn’t going to start until 12, I don’t want to hang about.  I’m going to go and do something else for half an hour”

This seemed an odd thing to do, after all, we’re all supposed to be uniting to fight the decision.  The big screen in Guildhall Square proclaims:

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But for some reason the leader of the council “didn’t want to hang around” and mix with the other demonstrators.  Now I’m not going to say I followed GVJ, because I wouldn’t want to get arrested for stalking a Lib Dem politician, but let’s just say I observed that it looked as if he popped home for a cup of tea.  It was just like “The Thick of It”.

After this bit of mild and fairly casual surveillance, I went on to the demo at the Victory Gate.  There was a decent crowd there shivering in a strong wind, and in due course we formed up to march behind banners, chanting slogans, waving flags, standard demo fare.  And as if by magic, Gerald Vernon-Jackson reappeared in his red anorak and took his place at the head of the march just as we moved off.  There were honks of support from car horns as we marched up Queen St.  We crossed Victoria Park and got into Guildhall Square where Unite had set up a stage and a PA.

The union reps gave the traditional speeches.  We heard about expressions of solidarity from workers in Glasgow (where there are jobs going too, remember) and Liverpool (where Cammell Laird survived at Birkenhead, but beat the odds to do it).  There were a couple of references to a “Tory-led coalition” which missed a bit of an open goal given that Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the 22nd most influential Lib Dem in the country, was in attendance.  Probably the best speech came from Lisa Fletcher, who reminded everyone of the impact the job losses would have across the whole local economy.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson spoke, and gave us his usual hand-wringing performance.  He said it was strategically stupid to close shipbuilding down until we know the outcome of the Scottish referendum, but that BAe and the government had made up their minds.  After he spoke, he stood forlornly on the edge of the crowd; none of his fellow Lib Dem councillors seemed to have turned up to support him, or the demo.

John Ferrett introduced himself as the Prospect representative, although of course he leads the Labour group on the City Council and is the prospective candidate for Portsmouth North.  It’s fair to say some people in the union movement think he’s a bit right-wing.  He was soon laying into the city’s two MPs, neither of whom was present, and GVJ for not using more of his famed influence with Nick Clegg to help get the policy overturned.

This sort of thing is fine up to a point.  Of course campaigners will welcome the support of the council and local politicians for Portsmouth Shipbuilding, which seeks to take over from BAe.  There is a whole market in civilian and export work which BAe has never made any effort to explore, either out of laziness or incompetence.

But none of the local politicians have challenged the defence policy or the spending priorities that led to this position.  We have a Navy that is too small, is going to get smaller, and we are going to carry on expanding the overseas aid budget while we cut defence spending.  This was reinforced yet again in the recent Autumn Statement from the government.  The position of all three major parties and their representatives in Portsmouth will remain totally unsatisfactory until they challenge this folly.  There would be enough naval work to keep Portsmouth and the Glasgow yards building for years to come if we had a balanced defence and foreign policy.

There has as yet been no proper response to the open letter from local leaders to David Cameron.  The response to the online petition to keep shipbuilding going has only had a brush-off reply from the MoD.  If you haven’t signed the petition yet, please do, it is still “live” and ideally it will reach the level required to make it eligible for debate in the Commons.

There are bound to be more demonstrations, and increasing pressure on politicians to make the sort of “defence of defence” that is required in this situation.  Certainly the idea of a “Portsmouth First” candidate in Portsmouth South to fight on the issue in 2015 hasn’t gone away, and if anything is gathering momentum in the discreet discussions going on between supporters of all the parties at the moment.

Regular readers will know I am a keen believer in using Freedom of Information legislation.  I made a request recently to the MoD about the biomass power station floated as an idea of for the Dockyard, on the grounds that the Dockyard electricity supply is going to be insufficient when the QE class carriers are in service.  MoD have confirmed to me that in fact they are upgrading the National Grid to supply the Dockyard, and there are no plans on their side, or indeed any requirement, for a biomass plant in the Dockyard.

Beyond that, I had a 5-inch-thick pile of double-sided printed material from MoD arrive a few days ago, which I am working through.  These are analyses of the upgrade plans for Portsmouth Dockyard over the next few years to cope with the QE class carriers and future repair work.  If I can find anything noteworthy in the pile, I will of course report on it here and on Twitter.

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