Is any semblance of an industrial strategy about to go the same way as Lord Heseltine’s report No Stone Unturned (his report on creating a re-balanced economy) and George Osborne’s now disguarded “march of the makers”?
It certainly seems that way.
The secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Sajid Javid, had already said earlier in the month that industrial policy (such as it was under the Coalition government) was ‘under review’.
Although the government had made previous commitments to supporting sectors such as our successful automotive industry, life sciences and advanced technologies, the avowedly Thatcherite Javid has not given much away – until now.
Yesterday morning the Financial Times journalist Beth Rigby tweeted, “Javid embarks in symbolic downgrading of Vince Cable’s “Industrial Strategy” – now an ‘industrial approach’.
This came as no surprise to some of us! At a meeting during the early part of the week with a key industrial commentator the answer to my question, so what do you think is happening over at BIS was – “Not much”.
Javid a free-marketeer is rumoured to have told BIS officials not to use the phrase ‘industrial policy’ as it was a ‘Liberal Democrat phrase’.
We have always suspected the Tories “don’t do” industrial policy, which they associate with the 1970s and the era of “picking winners”. Lord Hezza once retorted, “What do you want us to do, pick losers?”
The reality of this approach was also highlighted by the decision to sell off the Green Investment Bank, to the private sector and which I described as a “slap in the face for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) seeking much needed finance for ‘green’ manufacturing initiatives”.
The worry for manufacturing and for Unite members employed in manufacturing companies is what could happen in the long run, if BIS takes a short term, ‘leave it to the market approach’.
The reality is that the chances of a long-term plan based on sound investment, a much needed boosting of skills, a sound regional strategy and assistance for industry will dwindle.
Initiatives designed to help manufacturing and industry will be allowed to “wither on the vine”, training schemes and skills initiatives will be expected to be funded by industry – as pressure also grows to make £13bn worth of savings Javid has been told to make.
A manufacturing-led recovery is questionable as is answering the question of why UK productivity is so low.
Instead of answering the last question by examining investment decisions on new kit, the need to work smarter and develop high value jobs, how manufacturers deal with a soaring pound and how we develop decent long term jobs will be replaced by cracking the whip and driving down pay.
In contrast the penny seems to have dropped with Labour. Leadership candidates at this weeks trade union hustings mentioned the need for an industrial strategy based on high skills, quality apprenticeships and decent work, not a race to the bottom.
Andy Burnham once again talked about a UCAS style clearing house for apprenticeships and Liz Kendall referred to the German model of long term investment in industry – had they been busy reading up on Unite’s manufacturing and industrial policies? I hope so. It’s a pity they were not used to any large degree in the General Election campaign.
With a laissez-faire Thatcherite BIS secretary in place, this will be an opportunity Labour should not miss to spell out what needs to be done to re-balance the economy through an industrial policy. They should grasp it!