Two months ago I wrote about my part in the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme. Tonight, it was if the clock had been turned back 20 years, as I had to walk through a dockers' picket line to attend a dinner at the National Liberal Club marking the 20th anniversary of the Scheme's abolition. Members of UNITE had read about the dinner in my New Statesman diary last week and decided to turn out to give the 60 or so port employers and politicians the benefit of their views about what we did all those years ago.
To be fair, they were much better behaved than they were in 1989, when I received all sorts of threats from them - both verbal and physical. These were the very people who brought the Port of London to its knees in the 1960s and 1970s. Their love of restrictive practices such as 'ghosting'*, 'spelling' and 'welting', their adherence to a jobs for the boys culture, and their addiction to going on strike, often for no apparent reason, was the reason why great old ports like London, Liverpool, Tees, Southampton, Clyde, Forth and Bristol were all struggling to survive.
Since the repeal of the DLS all those ports have thrived and created tens of thousands of new jobs. As I have said, if I never achieve anything else in my life I am proud to have played a small part in helping this iniquitous piece of legislation to a well overdue and sorry end.
It was strange seeing a lot of people I hadn't seen in 20 years. My role was to host the evening's proceedings and introduce Norman Fowler, who had been Secretary of State for Employment at the time of the Scheme's repeal. It was also good to welcome three ex MPs to the dinner - Jacques Arnold, Nicholas Bennett and Patrick Nicholls - who had all played key roles in the campaign to end the Scheme.
British ports are thriving centres of enterprise and entrepreneurship. None of this would have happened if the Dock Labour Scheme had remained in place. And one mark of the repeal's success is that no one in Britain outside the remnants of the T&G would argue for its reinstatement. Even John Prescott, who was once the Scheme's greatest defender, must recognise that its abolition has transformed his local port of Hull. At least, I hope he would.
* Ghosting: allocating and paying dockers to do a job which couldn’t be done by dockers and ensuring they never appeared to do the job. The trouble is they had real pay packets and the shippers, importers and exporters had to pay. Other practices such as welting and bobbing were endemic. All these practices involved establishing an inflated gang size and letting half of them "bob off" home for the day on full pay. There was nothing an employer could do about it. "Spelling" is the practice where gang members alternate,working for two hours then resting for two hours. So the employer was paying for double the labour force actually needed.