Tens of thousands of skilled defence jobs are at risk from an ‘unpatriotic’ purchasing strategy that sees increasing amounts of UK defence expenditure flow to the US.
That was the message from Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, as he addressed hundreds of the union’s defence manufacturing members at a specially convened conference in Preston today (Monday 21 March), warning them that the Conservative party is playing politics with their jobs.
While the media spotlight has been on the political parties as the Conservatives dawdles on parliamentary time to debate the Successor programme, and the Labour party undergoes a review of its defence policy, Unite says that the government’s lack of strategic approach to defence procurement has been incurring heavy domestic costs and is denying the industry a long-term future.
According to Unite, the biggest union in defence manufacturing, 50,000 skilled defence manufacturing jobs have been lost in the last decade, leaving the sector with a skills shortage. More jobs are in danger such as those at BAe in Warton where five thousand jobs will go over the next four years unless new contracts are forthcoming from the government. Every job lost puts at risk between another five and seven in the supply chain, meaning some 40,000 more jobs are at risk overall.
Against this backdrop, the union says that the government must change course which will see it double the percentage of the UK defence budget that goes to support US companies and jobs by 2020, up from 12 pence in every pound to 25 pence. The union says that this money must be redirected to support UK jobs.
Addressing Unite’s defence members, Len McCluskey said: “Without reservation, without equivocation, without hesitation, Unite will defend every last job of our members in the defence industry.
The best of British manufacturing
“Our clear message to politicians is that this union will never support any public policy which sees our members and their communities thrown on the scrapheap. The skills, productivity and ingenuity they possess are why they represent the best of British manufacturing capabilities, and the best of an industrial tradition that too many politicians have been too careless about for too long.
“Up and down the country, communities depend on the defence industry for their prosperity, for jobs, for a future for young people, and for economic security. No trade union that I lead is ever going to allow any of that to be put at risk.”
Calling for a UK-first policy to determine UK defence spending priorities, Len McCluskey said: “Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in defence over the last decade due to short-sighted and fatally flawed government decisions. “Value for money” is used as an argument to buy defence equipment from overseas – usually the USA. But what a false economy that is.
“Spending British taxpayers’ money buying British-built equipment isn’t just good for our companies and our jobs – it’s also good news for the Treasury who get tax revenues back straight away, and for the UK economy as workers employed here spend money in shops, pubs and restaurants here at home.
“You would think that buying British-built equipment for our Armed Forces would therefore be a no-brainer – it’s obvious that buying British-built kit is good for the country. So why is this government planning to double the amount of defence pounds spent in the USA by 2020?”
McCluskey also attacked the Conservative government for causing havoc to the industry and called for contracts to be rewarded now to UK manufacturers: “If you need one clear example of the vandalism being wreaked by the Tories on defence then look no further than the utter disgrace of what happened to Nimrod. Five years ago the government ordered the destruction of the MRA4 Nimrods. Workers at Woodford lost their jobs and the UK lost a critical capability to patrol and protect its shores. £4 billion of investment was written off overnight.
“Wind forward five years and the same Conservative Prime Minister and Chancellor preside over a decision to fill the capability gap they caused by the scrapping of Nimrod. And what do they do? They order replacement planes from the USA. A billion pounds of our money being spent in America to fill a gap this government itself created, on top of the £4 billion wasted scrapping a world class plane.
Incompetent, short-sighted, unpatriotic
“Incompetent, short-sighted, unpatriotic – today’s government in a nutshell.
“We have called for a sixth generation fighter aircraft to be developed, safeguarding highly skilled jobs for the long term. And our members on the Clyde are battling for the world-class frigate factory they were promised when shipbuilding ended at Portsmouth and 1,775 jobs were lost in shipbuilding, half of those on the Clyde.”
Turning to the issue of Trident, McCluskey said: “Let me also make it clear – and there should be no doubt about it – Unite is also right behind every member involved in our nation’s submarine industry.
“We all understand the politics of the situation. The decision to replace Trident would be in the spotlight whenever it was taken. There is nothing illegitimate in debating the cost, the strategic thinking, or the morality. That is normal in a democratic society.
“Some are trying to make this all about the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has the views on disarmament that he has always held, and I think the public are tired of politicians who trim their opinions to fit fashion. I respect that – and him. But the Labour Party must respect this – Unite is a trade union and for us, our members, their jobs and their communities must come first. So we will play a full part in Labour’s very welcome Defence Review led by Emily Thornberry, ensuring your concerns and aspirations are fully heard.
Playing games with your jobs
“But our focus must first of all be on the government. That is where decisions are being made, and the Tories are playing games with your jobs.
“They are trying to keep the whole issue of nuclear weapons in the news because it embarrasses Labour and covers up their own deep splits over Europe rather than engaging in the debate and responsibly planning for the future of the industry.”
Lastly, McCluskey said that the UK government should do as our competitors do and use government spend to support domestic manufacturing: “UK forces should use UK built equipment, protecting UK workers’ jobs and contributing to our economy.
“Of course, this goes beyond the defence sector alone. Britain needs a Britain-first manufacturing procurement policy. A system where British police forces drive cars made in Britain; where British hospitals use medical equipment made in Britain, receiving patients in ambulances made in Britain, where British built trains run on our railways and British ships are made with British steel.
“This isn’t a nationalist rant – it’s a call for our government to support our economy and our jobs, something that every other government in the world seems to regard as natural.
“If we did the same, then I believe the whole debate around defence diversification, a debate which has gone exactly nowhere for decades, would be much more realistic.”
Read the speech in full