Save Vestas supporters picketed the constituency surgery of Joan Ruddock MP, Climate Change Minister, in Deptford, south London this afternoon. About 20 of us put up banners and posters and leafleted passers-by. Outside the surgery we chanted “What do we want? Nationalisation! How do we want it? Under workers’ control!” The local people we spoke to were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Vestas workers. Pictures soon.
Ruddock this week has had to play backstop to Ed Miliband, last seen in a rainforest in Brazil, lecturing developing countries on their responsibilities in the global “Climate Change Challenge”. Yesterday Joan met Vestas workers’ reps, together with the RMT, Unite and the TUC, for last minute discussions about what the government could do to stop the Vestas plant closing.
Today, she gamely agreed to meet a delegation from our picket at the request of one of her constituents. We put some questions to her about the government’s role in the Vestas events. In the conversation below Q = a questioner, several of us putting questions to Joan (JR).
Q: What has the government done to save the jobs at Vestas?
JR: I’ll tell you what I told a delegation of Vestas workers, the RMT, Unite and the TUC yesterday. We’ve done a lot. Months ago we had notice of the potential closure. We asked Vestas: what help can we give you as a government? There was no help that we could give them. They did not want money. They wanted to move the factory for their own commercial reasons. Let me tell you about their product. The blades they make are 40 metres long, they are not suitable for use in the UK…
Q: But they can convert the factory to make blades that are suitable…
JR: They can convert the factory. There was discussion about that. The workers told us that until recently the conversion was going to go ahead. I don’t know the details of why that did not go ahead. It is not just here, they have made a large number of people unemployed in Denmark as well where they are based.
Q: Why not nationalise the plant? You have stepped in to nationalise the banks because there was a need to shore up the financial system. The government has set very high targets for expanding renewable energy, and very high targets for cutting carbon emissions. Is that not a similar emergency that would justify the government stepping in?
JR: It’s not up for sale! We can’t just nationalise a whole company.
Q: Not the company, the plant. We cannot let meeting the targets depend on the business decisions of private companies. We will not meet the targets if we do that…
JR: We will meet these targets! Wind energy has increased by 29% [in the last year?]. We are not going to nationalise. You have a different model. We have offered Vestas £6 million to develop the R&D facility on the Isle of Wight. That will be 150 jobs – it’s not 600, but it is something. Vestas will accept £6 million for that. We will meet the targets on the present model of letting the market do it. We do agree on the general point of keeping manufacturing jobs in the UK. We are having ongoing discussion about how we keep and develop the skilled manufacturing jobs here.
Q: Closure of the plant is devastating for the Isle of Wight employment situation which is already bad, with 100 applicants for each job. What will you do to save this community?
JR: We have set up a taskforce, with the South East England Development Agency, we are putting in place the support structures and continuing to work to maximise business start-ups. Vestas might keep the plant and reopen again when conditions are right.
Q: Why should progress rely on private companies’ business decisions?
JR: You all have a different philosophy from me about what is the best way to produce jobs.
Q: Can we subsidise travel between the Island and the mainland, so that young people can have more mobility? Travel is very expensive at the moment.
JR: I don’t know, that is not my department.
Q: You have a belief in the market – that’s your philosophy. But what about being practical? Have you done a feasibility study into whether it would be better economically overall to nationalise the plant?
JR: There has not been a feasibility study because we are not going to nationalise, because we are sticking to our principles.
Q: Your belief in markets is like a religious belief.
JR: We live in a market economy, all the advanced economies think the same. The only economy that does not have a market is North Korea…
Q: We live in a mixed economy, there is a lot of state intervention in the economy and the balance shifts back and forth depending on politics. These companies do not do what they do out of a love for the people who make the profits for them. They go where profits are highest. What do you think should happen to the workers who occupied, who drew our attention to this issue?
JR: We will look at all the issues raised by workers about their jobs. I’ve asked my opposite numbers in the Department of Work and Pensions to look at what can be done for the workers.
Q: Will you undertake a feasibility study?
JR: It’s not appropriate! The government does not want to be producers of wind turbines, and we did not want to be bankers.
Q: Not even to save the environment?
Q: The Tories nationalised Rolls Royce…
JR: That’s another story…
Q: Nationalisation is what happened with East Coast Mainline. You nationalised it while you look for another buyer. Can’t you do that with this plant? Nationalisation doesn’t have to be like the nationalisations of the 1970s.
JR: We are pulling out all the stops – short of nationalisation!