Picking up last weekend’s press, I almost choked on my morning tea when I read that ‘Red Wall Tories’ were working to save UK aerospace. This was news to me – albeit welcome if true – and no doubt a surprise to our members in the business too as they nervously eye the looming end of the job retention scheme.
There is just one Tory with an aerospace seat, I’ve encountered to date, who has taken the time to comment on our efforts to save an industry. To spare his blushes, I will protect his identity. He was the MP who wrote to Unite to complain that we were not grateful enough for what the government has been doing. He totally failed to grasp that outside of the job retention scheme we won from the Chancellor back in March, and very welcome that is, what little ministerial support there has been since then is simply not at the pace nor on the scale needed. And it is in no way comparable to that provided by competitor nations.
So much more has been done to try to save these and other manufacturing jobs by Labour MPs such as Chris Matheson and Louise Haigh, who have been proactive on demanding support, and by Anneliese Dodds and Ed Miliband, who have been voluble about the urgent need to avert the jobs crisis very much visible on the horizon.
Because while the official unemployment figure remains under two million, over 13m workers have been or still are on furlough. As the clock ticks down to the end of the JRS, tens of thousands of redundancy notices have already been issued. Right across our nations, workers are holding their breath, fearing the worst when the point in August, September or October comes, and employers say that they cannot afford to keep them on.
‘Son of furlough’
Unite is now discussing with the Labour frontbench team and respected economists what the ‘son of furlough’ should look like. Essentially, we want to show to government that it costs less for the Treasury to keep people in work and off the dole, earning and spending, than keeping them idle, fruitlessly and destructively, on this country’s pauper-level benefits. We see no shame in borrowing the best of the French and German short-term working schemes – respectively, the chomage partiel and the Kurzarbeit – which have saved thousands of jobs in those nations.
We’ve got backing from serious players in industry, with our shop stewards across manufacturing now working to get their employers on board, too. In fact, it is only within the higher reaches of this government that there is no serious look at imaginative solutions to avert large scale redundancies.
It seems a no-brainer to us that government’s very purpose is to use its unique powers to improve our lives – certainly it should do no harm.
Which brings me to Grant Shapps. In the days before he headed off for his ill-fated holiday in Spain, I wrote to him about the plights of UK bus makers Alexander Denis, Optare and Wrightbus. The collapse in passenger numbers has seen a corresponding collapse in order for new buses, down by an immense 80 per cent.
It is yet another incidence of this crisis stagnating demand but where central government could play a vital role in preserving a sector in which we are world leaders. The government could hugely improve public life if this unique time were used to sprint towards greener, cleaner technologies.
What’s needed is for the Transport Secretary to agree a pipeline of work, acting as both procurer and leaser of a clean, green replacement fleet of UK manufactured buses. Removing the older fleet from our streets and pump priming the manufacture of 1,000 new vehicles would cost around £400m.
What we’re suggesting is that this is taken from the already allocated £3bn earmarked for bus travel to fill the current, short-term collapse in the market and protect a world-class industry while developing the future hybrid, hydrogen, battery and synthetic fuel technologies for both home use and export. It is a perfect example of how to build back better, as promised by the Prime Minister.
‘Thousands of jobs are now at risk’
Without this sort of practical support, thousands of jobs are currently at risk. Cuts of 650 have already been announced by Alexander Dennis. It is not widely known but British-built buses are loved around the world, with models made in Falkirk and Guildford seen driving around the streets of Berlin and Singapore. But the future of this globally revered symbol of UK manufacturing expertise – and the 25,000 direct and indirect jobs this industry provides – now very much hang in the balance.
Further, with the mounting prospect of a disastrous no deal arrangement with the EU at the end of the year and the default trading basis being that of the WTO, those nations that currently buy British may well look elsewhere. Turkey is the expected beneficiary.
Covid-19 is clobbering UK manufacturing but our government’s failure to leap to the sector’s assistance is causing further harm. It’s infuriating and bewildering in equal measure. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose and everything to gain from investing in saving jobs, recovering our industries and greening our communities.
August is just around the corner. The choices this government has made in its response to this crisis are about to be felt in homes and communities across the country. Unite will be working every hour of this summer month to persuade it to do the right thing by the country’s workers and industries.
If those Red Wall Tories really want to help, rather than claim the plaudits for work not done, they would be better advised to roll up their sleeves and join us in the hard graft of persuading this now action-shy government that a failure to step in and step up will never be forgotten nor forgiven.
By Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary @SteveT_Unite
This feature first appeared in LabourList, July 30