Anger over job losses turns on Blair

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THE PEOPLE of the north-east were angry yesterday - angry at losing their jobs, angry that a seemingly secure employer like Fujitsu was shedding 600 jobs, and angry that the Prime Minister - their local MP - had let them down.

The pounds 500m Fujitsu micro-chip plant in Newton Aycliffe is at the heart of Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency. Other local MPs and trade unions said the closure, seven years after the Queen opened the factory, proved urgent action was needed to bring down the value of the pound.

Fujitsu, meanwhile, sent a letter to the MPs blaming its decision on the worldwide slump in the market for semi-conductors, which are made at the plant. Their value is in freefall, down from pounds 43 to 70p each in a matter of months.

But the people of Newton Aycliffe were having none of it. They laid the blame fairly and squarely on the shoulders of Tony Blair.

On Friday night in the bar of the Huntsman pub, in Woodham, three miles down the road from the Fujitsu plant, the talk was of little else but the closure and the redundancy notices which the workforce took home that afternoon.

"A lot of people were encouraged to move here and buy houses with pounds 99 deposits. Two years later they're out on their ear," said Margaret Burrow, of Woodham. "Microchips were supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread, now they're worth nothing. It's always the north that seems to get it. Tony Blair held his election count at the leisure centre but since then he's just ignored everyone."

Her view was echoed by Michael Wood of Darlington. "Look at this town centre - there's nothing in the shops, just think of what taking 600 people out of the local economy will do to them. What's interesting is that you ask people here who they vote for and they say Labour. Why? Because their dad voted Labour. Ask them what they really think about Tony Blair and you'll get a different answer. He isn't a Labour man. He's got no sympathy for the worker."

The Fujitsu factory closure is another blow to a region still reeling from the announcement that the nearby Siemens plant in north Tyneside was to shut with the loss of 1,100 jobs. The two closures have put an abrupt end to talk that the north-east was about to become a "silicon fell" of hi-tech electronics production. There is concern about even more job losses since Electrolux has refused to guarantee the future of 800 jobs at its Flymo plant in Newton Aycliffe.

The Government professes itself well aware of the political implications of factory closures in a region that pinned its hopes on job prospects in the new technologies and Asian investment, after the traditional industries of mining and shipbuilding collapsed during the 1980s.

Yet many local people feel the Government has not fully understood the impact of the redundancies. Local county councillor Tony Moore said the Government had become too obsessed with an economic policy that benefited the south-east service industries. "The Fujitsu workers are now experiencing what their parents went through," said Mr Moore.

Sue Johnson, chief executive of the Northern Business Forum, said: "After the Siemens shock we hoped we could still turn the situation around but that hope is starting to drain away. The trend needs to be stopped abruptly. The closures have a common thread - they are compounded by the level of the pound and high interest rates. The time for Government intervention is now."

Bob Howard, TUC regional secretary, suggested the north-east should review its dependence on inward investment from foreign hi-tech industries. He said distinctions had to be drawn between manufacturing industries, such as Nissan, which has sustained and increased employment, and the more volatile IT sector.

Yesterday, Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is also a local MP, for Hartlepool, began talks with Fujitsu in an attempt to secure a last-minute reprieve for the plant. And Mr Blair wrote in the Darlington -based Northern Echo: "The people who awoke to an uncertain future on Friday have not just my sympathy but also my pledge, as their local MP and Prime Minister, that this Government will do all it can to find a buyer for the site."

Mr Blair can take consolation from one Fujitsu worker, Gary Brown, who spent three years as a forklift driver at the nearby Sanyo plant, before securing a job at Fujitsu. "The problem is the price of micro-chips has just gone down and down. I have got every confidence in Tony Blair. I don't think he could have had any influence," he said.

Mr Brown works 12-hour shifts, four days on, four days off, mixing day and night shifts. He takes home pounds 1,400 a month. Encouraged to work overtime, he often does 80 hours a week. He believes working practices at Fujitsu will help the employees find other jobs. "Every day you learn something new and you are encouraged to take NVQs in micro-electronics. You get good incentives from the company."

But Mr Brown's opinion was a minority one yesterday. As the people of Newton Aycliffe went about their shopping, they asked themselves, where was their local MP? Downing Street said Mr Blair had not been able to fit in a visit. To his constituents, that may seem a serious mistake for a man known for his political acumen.