In September 1987 I was on holiday in Michigan when I decided to buy a copy of The Times. I had just finished a two year stint as a researcher in the House of Commons and needed to find a new job. Quick. I saw an advert for the position as Public Affairs Manager for the British Ports Association & National Association of Port Employers. In those days, lobbying was in its infancy and to be honest I wasn't sure what the job would really entail. Anyway, I spent an hour in the University of Michigan library in Ann Arbor (which remains one of my favourite towns in the world) touching up my CV and constructing a letter of application. A month later, I had beaten 200 other applicants for the job and started work in a rather dingy office in New Oxford Street. While preparing for interviews, virtually everyone I spoke to said, "ah, you'll be trying to persuade the government to get rid of the Dock Labour Scheme". Dock Labour Scheme? What the hell was that? It certainly didn't sound very exciting. I started researching it and was horrified by what I found. It was a piece of employment legislation which gave registered dock workers privileges other workers could only dream of. They had a guaranteed job for life, it was impossible to sack them, when they retired their jobs automatically passed to their sons and they were paid at rates other workers (and indeed dock workers in non scheme ports) could only dream of. Spanish practices were rife and if a port closed down, dockers were transferred to the nearest port even if it was run by a different company and there was no need for them.
How on earth could this scheme exist after 8 years of a Thatcher government, I asked myself. I wasn't the only one. But Margaret Thatcher was frightened of the dockers. Nigel Lawson writes in his memoirs...
Margaret displayed cold feet to a quite remarkable degree. She suggested [at a meeting in 1985], first, that it would be more sensible to do nothing and let the Scheme wither on the vine. She then expressed acute anxiety about the effect of a dock strike on the balance of payments and Sterling. I replied that if anyone should be worried about that, it would be me, and I was not... But Margaret was adamant. She concluded that there was no prospect in abolishing the Dock Labour Scheme this side of an election - then still some two years off. A disappointed Nick Ridley [Transport Secretary] accepted her verdict and that was that.So my task was to launch a campaign to persuade Margaret Thatcher to do the necessary and get rid of this piece of iniquitous employment legislation. It soon became clear that one of the reasons the port employers had recruited me was because I had previously worked for a Tory MP who had been a PPS at the Department of Transport. They thought I knew my way around that department. I didn't like to tell them I had never set foot in it, let alone met a single civil servant from the DoT!
Together with my boss, Nick Finney, I launched a hearts and minds campaign aimed at politicians and the media. Barely a week seemed to go by without someone writing an Op Ed calling for the Scheme to go, or for a tabloid news report to appear about Spanish practices in the industry. Tory MP Jacques Arnold put down an EDM, which rapidly attracted more than 400 signatures - more than any other that session. He and his colleague Nick Bennett kept up the parliamentary pressure, with debates, questions and meetings. It was then that I got a call from an MP I had never heard of, David Davis. "I think you need to change strategy," he said bluntly. We met and I was impressed by what he had to say. He proceeded to write a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies titled CLEAR THE DECKS and took a grip of the campaign in Parliament, gently (or not so gently) elbowing aside Arnold and Bennett. David Davis's advice and actions turned out to be of crucial importance, and it was then that I marked him out as "one to watch". We also met with Michael Meacher and John Prescott (Labour's employment and transport spokesmen) who made clear that they couldn't publicly support us, but they knew the Scheme was an anachronism and although they would go through the motions of having to make sceptical remarks about our stand, they wouldn't lift a finger to support the unions.
We were clearly knocking at an open door throughout the Conservative Party. But the door at Number Ten remained firmly shut. We quickly realised that a campaign purely based on the iniquities of the Dock Labour Scheme wasn't going to persuade she who needed to be persuaded. So we decided to commission a report from some economic consultants, WEFA. Their report was given the remit of outlining the economic benefits of repeal. They concluded that up to 48,000 new jobs would be created. Their reasoning was easy to understand, for in the 63 DLS ports (which included London, Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Clyde, Forth, Tees, Hull and Immingham - but not Dover and Felixstowe) the port authorities were prevented by law from allowing any non port related activity within their boundaries. If the Scheme didn't exist they could utilise their land however they wished.
Secondly, we needed to show that a national dock strike would not be as calamitous as the Prime Minister feared. Traditionally, the port employers and shipping lines had been regarded as soft touches by the unions. We knew the shipowners wouldn't change, and we knew that the chairman of P&O has Mrs T's ear. So we had to demonstrate that the port employers would be completely robust and not buckle under union pressure. So we produced a guide for the employers on how to deal with a strike in the event of repeal.
We decided to hold a one day conference for the employers on the subject and scheduled it for April 6 1989. A few days before the conference one of the civil servants phoned and told us to prepare for an announcement that the Scheme was about to be repealed. "When's the announcement," we asked tentatively. "I haven't told you this, but it will be on 6 April," he said. Oh. My. God. The day of our "Preparing for a Strike" conference. We knew no one would believe this to be complete coincidence, but that is exactly what it was. We debated whether to call it off, but decided the downsides of that were worse than people thinking we were in collusion with the government.
Mobile phones had only just been invented, and I remember spending half that day with a massive Vodafone handset glued to my ear. The employers themselves hadn't got a clue what was about to hit them. Finally, at 3.30, Norman Fowler, the Employment Secretary stood up in the Commons and made the announcement. "Thunderbirds are go," said my informant. We then made the announcement to the employers who received the news in stunned silence. They thought it was a joke, or prelude to some sort of role play exercise. But it wasn't. It was for real.
Immediately, many dockers walked out in a series of wildcat strikes. The T&G union under Ron Todd was caught totally on the hop. They never really thought this day would come.
A couple of days later, disaster struck. Our entire strategy document had been leaked to The Independent. We never found out who had done it but Nick Finney and I initially thought that the game was up. Quite the reverse turned out to be true. The contents of the document scared the unions half to death. They couldn't believe the level of pre-planning which had been happening. We had identified which ports were likely to strike and which would remain open for business. We had identified small wharves all over the country which could take shipments if the major ports were shut. We had even laid plans to fly in foreign dock workers if necessary. The leak actually proved to be a masterstroke, as it transformed the port employers' reputation both in the eyes of the unions and the government.
The unions announced plans for a national ballot of dockers, which we knew would vote in favour of strike action. But we had prepared for that and had carefully laid out plans to take them to court. When we did, the union won. We appealed to the High Court and I remember attending the hearing on a Saturday afternoon. We thought we had little hope of the verdict going in our direction - but it did. I remember looking over to the BBC's Industrial Correspondent, John Fryer, and we both shook our heads in a state of bemusement. It was a grievous blow to the T&G who were having a very difficult time keeping their more militant members in check. There was violence on the picket lines and violence by striking dockers towards those who returned to work. Employers were threatened with violence and worse. I regularly received threatening phone calls and mail.
While all this was going on the Dock Labour Scheme (Abolition) Bill slowly made its way through Parliament and eventually received Royal Assent on 6 July. By that time, strike action was dying out and very sporadic. Court action, the return to work by many dockers, and the ability of importers and exporters to find other ports to get their goods in and out meant that the unions knew that the game was up.
I remember being at my parents house one Saturday afternoon in July 1989 and being told that dockers at Southampton and Tilbury had just voted to go back to work. Indeed, that gave rise to one of the best headlines I have ever read in the SUNDAY SPORT the next day.
Apparently, at the Tilbury mass meeting, which was held in an open field, a horse had wandered up to the assembled dockers while they were being addressed by a union official. Just as he encouraged them all to return to work, the horse broke wind in a very loud manner. I was quoted in the SUNDAY SPORT story saying "That just about sums up the whole strike".
That signalled the end of a three months stint where I was working 6am to midnight every day and appearing on news bulletins and radio stations almost non stop. Our hearts and minds campaign had been a great success, even if one industrial reporter dubbed me "master of the trite press release". But the feeling of complete letdown at the end of it was terrible. The phone stopped ringing. I hadn't got a job any longer really. Even though we had scored a tremendous success, I had the same feeling after the general election campaign finished in 2005. There was nothing to make the adrenaline flow any longer.
Over those two years I made contacts in the media and in politics who would feature a lot in my life over the next two decades. I've already mentioned David Davis. Kevin Maguire was a young industry reporter on the Daily Telegraph. Paul Routledge was Labour editor on the Observer and could be guaranteed to ask the one question I wouldn't want to answer. But perhaps my clearest memory of that whole time was being rung up during the strike by another Industrial Correspondent saying his editor needed a front page story and he needed me to give it to him. He was clearly the worse for drink, so I ended up dictating a story to him, which ran word for word in next day's paper. Those were the days.
I remember saying to someone around that time that if I never achieved anything else in my life, I would look back on the past two years and know that I had done something which would benefit the country hugely over the coming decades. And so it proved. The 63 former Scheme ports could now at last complete with non Scheme ports like Felixstowe and Dover on a level playing field. No longer would they be held to ransom by trade unions who could previously bring them to a standstill with no warning. They could now develop their landbanks and attract new businesses into port areas. In short, the abolition of the DLS has created tens of thousand of new jobs, just as we predicted. It has enabled Britain's ports to compete with their European neighbours, and it enabled the government then to privatise many of them during the 1990s. But that's another story.
In mid 1991 I wrote a pamphlet for AIMS OF INDUSTRY which sought to outline the progress the former Scheme ports had made since abolition, and how the government should now press ahead with the privatisation of the Trust Ports. It concluded...
The Government's abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme was a model of well thought-out policy backed up by firmness and resolution. Described as the "best kept government secret for years" by the Sunday Times the announcement took everyone by surprise. Few of the Thatcher reforms can have had such a dramatic effect in such a short time on management morale, free enterprise and industrial relations. With productivity up, profits rising and customer service improving, former Employment Secretary Norman Fowler has every reason to be proud of his achievement.
For many of the Dock Labour Scheme ports, privatisation now beckons. The ports of Medway, Forth, Clyde, Tees and Tilbury are all set to enter the private sector, as ABP did so successfully in 1983.
it is the natural second stage in the Government's ports policy. Some have expressed severe doubts about privatisation and been vocal in their opposition. In they end they too will come to realise that they need have no fear of life outside the shackles of their Trust status. Free enterprise works.
UPDATE: To read my Telegraph column on what David Cameron can learn from the repeal of the Dock Labour Scheme click HERE. Here's a short extract.
Almost overnight, British ports became strike-free and competitive. Through a single act, the Conservatives triggered the revival of Bristol, Tees, Tilbury and Sheerness, which were suddenly able to compete with non-Scheme ports such as Felixstowe. It was, judges Nigel Lawson, a "textbook example" of good government – not least because the announcement took the trade unions by surprise and the reform was carried out with great political skill.
Important as the measure was, the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme has wider significance: it symbolises the effect that one relatively small act of deregulation can have on the economy. Thousands of new jobs were created, new businesses sprang up, and shipping lines became far more willing to use British ports.
If we are going to get out of this recession, it is crucial that we look at taking that model further. Small and medium-sized enterprises are shackled by red tape – and although it isn't as restrictive as old-fashioned labour agreements, it has a similar stultifying effect.
The Tories must draw up a list of such regulations to sweep away, even though parts of the Civil Service will try to block such measures, just as there were vested interests within the Department of Employment that fought the repeal of the DLS.
BBC On This Day 6 April 1989
Speech by Employers leader Nick Finney on the abolition of the DLS