ALL eyes were on Lord Mandelson last week as he paid a visit to Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port, writes Gary Porter.
He may be under immense pressure to safeguard thousands of UK jobs, but Lord Mandelson cut a relaxed figure during his visit to the town’s Vauxhall plant.
Having met with union leaders and workers, as well as having the opportunity to test drive the new Astra, it was perhaps unsurprising that he emerged from his tour of the factory in a defiant mood.
Impressed by what he had seen, the business secretary spoke of his confidence in the future of the North Road site before vowing to ‘fight for every job’ as he seeks clarification on the long-term plans of the two bidders vying to takeover General Motors’ European operations.
After revealing Canadian car parts firm Magna and Belgian-based investor RHJ are now the two front runners, he also indicated a deal could be struck this week.
But despite being ‘impatient for a solution’ to end the uncertainty for the 2,200 workers at Ellesmere Port, who began their three-week summer shutdown on Friday, Lord Mandelson refused to be rushed into a decision on which bid he will back with taxpayers’ money.
He said: “The plant has a very strong future, you just have to look around it to see the quality and efficiency of the place, the working environment, it’s hardly surprising that productivity is high here and costs are low.
“When you see the quality of the new model which is coming off the production line and how good it is to drive – which I can now testify from experience – I’m now going to leave Ellesmere Port and become a walking advertisement for the new Astra.
“And I’m proud to do so because it’s a great car, produced by a great workforce here in a great plant, and of course they have a future. But what we have to do in the mean time is fight for every job and that is what I’m going to do.”
He added: “We’re working for a solution that sees the maximum of the workforce here at Ellesmere Port retained for the longer term future not just immediately.
“This is important because whilst the two bidders have made clear they are committed to continue production by Vauxhall, I have to ask the more difficult questions.
“And that’s for how long? What volume of production? How many shifts? What head count of the workforce will continue to be employed here.
“We need answers to all these questions before we, the Government, decide where we’re going to put our money and where we’re going to put our support behind one of the bids.
“We will take as much time as we need. I’m not going to be rushed or bounced into a decision which is not in the interests of Vauxhall UK.”
Plant union convener John Fetherston was delighted with Lord Mandelson’s firm commitment to safeguarding the plant.
When asked whether he thought the visit was a show for the cameras, he said: “I don’t believe it was spin, he would get caught out if it was.
“He said everything we wanted to hear. We have identical aims and he is very supportive of Ellesmere Port and Vauxhall. It was a positive visit.”
Independent parliamentary candidate Jonathan Starkey added: “It is good to see support from the Government for Vauxhall’s, Ellesmere Port, but will Lord Mandelson comment regarding leaked document reports in The Times last week that if Magna, the leading bidder, take over there will be 830 jobs lost at Ellesmere Port and 354 at Luton?
“Also, why is no-one asking publicly the question why, hopefully, if talks are successful with either Magna, RHJ International or the Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co, is job security for the workers at Vauxhall’s not secure beyond 2013? These workers have families and financial responsibilities beyond 2013.”