Towards the end of last year, I had a fascinating meeting with a major employer. They wanted Unite’s help with replacing their entire fleet of vans with electric ones built here in the UK. Good for the planet, good for UK jobs, happy to help. There was just one problem: we don’t make a single electric van in this country to meet their needs.
I wish that this was the only call of this nature that I’ve taken in recent times, but it isn’t. I’ve seen our navy’s ships built on the Clyde with imported steel rather than steel from UK producers, and I’ve seen our emergency services driving around in anything but a UK-produced vehicle. I’ve spoken to an army of UK manufacturers looking to make desperately needed personal protective equipment, alongside Covid-19 test-kit specialists who cannot get a UK contract despite supplying millions to governments overseas.
Sadly, I know that when a good news story breaks like the potential of thousands of new jobs to be created in laying super-fast broadband cables, the cheers will go up in North Carolina. Because that is where the same man looking to buy electric vans was off to purchase mile after mile of fibre optic cable, rather than from two perfectly good world-class sites here in the UK.
What is it about UK manufacturing? Why won’t our government, and too many private sector corporations, show real pride and faith in our homegrown skills and products? The one fifth wiped off the size of the economy in April is in large part – as the Chancellor himself accepts – because we are an economy heavily dependent on the service sector. But as we now look to build back, this is the opportunity that must be taken to repair, recover and rebuild, with manufacturing at the heart of a new, greener, transitioning economy.
When the coronavirus crisis hit, our automotive and aerospace sectors in particular were already being challenged by government own goals like diesel-gate, a US/China trade war, growing uncertainties over future European trade rules and the climate emergency. If the need to invest, diversify and better use the UK’s world-leading research and design, engineering and manufacturing capabilities to meet those challenges – up-skilling millions and training an army of new apprentices on the way – was not clear before lockdown, it is vivid and urgent now.
For every worker in a manufacturing plant, four more jobs are supported through an extensive supply chain. Decent union-won wages in the sector reflect the expertise of this talented workforce. They don’t just support millions of families, high streets and communities across the land – they also contribute the export revenues and UK taxes that support our NHS and public services. Putting manufacturing at the heart of the UK economy, just as they do in Germany and France, is a no-brainer.
Why has it not been done? The non-existent UK electric van reflects a depressing lack of long-term vision and investment, as well as a complete failure of successive governments to understand the role of domestic industry in rebalancing and powering the UK economy. Levelling up our economy, skilling our workforce and supporting our regions requires more than talk of an industrial strategy while swallowing the globalisation Kool-Aid that led us to an unthinking over-reliance on overseas supply chains, imported products and insecure, low-paid service jobs.
Covid-19 changes all that, as will the outcome of negotiations on our future relationship with the European Union. Corporations are rethinking investment plans, retreating to major markets, reacting to government incentives and bringing home supply chains.
When Honda announced that it was closing its Swindon plant and Ford, Bridgend, this was an opportunity for government to step in with a plan, invest in the future of our sector and support its transition to electric vehicles. These plants should be seen as national assets and a programme for repurposing them implemented. We desperately need a gigafactory to produce batteries and others producing powertrain, fuel cells and digital control systems. The plants are available, the workforce is ready, and industry is crying out for a plan. Failure to act in the past can be rectified with a genuine plan now to recover and rebuild.
It’s clear that hostility towards active, interventionist government still infects the Conservatives. While sector packages have been secured in our competitor economies, we’re still waiting for even a signal that help is coming. The failure to incentivise demand, plan for necessary infrastructure or even outline a strategy for long-term support is putting UK jobs at risk, as others become more attractive for businesses looking for a willing partner in government. Don’t take my word for that: the CEO of Airbus warned over the weekend that the readiness of the French government to support its industry makes France the much more tempting nation in which to invest. Nissan COO Ashwani Gupta warned recently of the company’s fears for the viability of their huge Sunderland plant in the event of a tariff-imposing trade deal with the European Union.
Urgent action is now needed to build back better. Steps like an aircraft replacement scheme can secure our manufacturing base in a high-value, high-waged economy while delivering the climate change obligations that every right-thinking politician is signed up to. Focused sectoral support, as with Germany and France, will also have to continue for some time to come; in Germany, strategically-vital businesses can breathe knowing that state assistance will continue for two years.
For a Prime Minister and a government facing a chorus of calls to “get a grip”, it is time for them to do something to prove that they have a plan for the country that we need to become. The dithering and resistance to committing as a willing partner alongside working people and industry, to use this extraordinary national moment to reshape our economy for the common good, makes me fear that far from building back better, the plan may well just be to build back as before.
Given the sacrifices and suffering of people through this crisis, ambition for and commitment to a stronger, fairer economy is the least we deserve. Let’s start with that electric van plant because UK workers are ready to lead the world.
By Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner
This comment piece first appeared on Labour List on June 17