Workers must have a collective say over economic recovery

Unite AGS Steve Turner calls for national recovery council where workers lead the way

Reading time: 7 min

Ahead of the Chancellor’s Spending Review, let us cast our minds back to Boris Johnson’s infamous promise to “level up” Britain.

As with all of Johnson’s slogans, it is a promise of great anticipation. The sunny uplands to which we are to be led are always just over the next horizon.

But come Wednesday’s Spending Review it is crunch time — will the Chancellor put his money where his boss’s mouth is?

The Prime Minister may talk about “jobs, jobs, jobs” but jobs like those at Ford in Bridgend or Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick — skilled, unionised work with hard-won terms and conditions — may no longer be the norm in large parts of south Wales or Lancashire.

Slogans are of little comfort now, in the cold reality of November, to workers fighting for their livelihood and facing a bleak Christmas, as well as those already struck off the payroll.

Since March Unite has warned the government of the tsunami of jobs which could be lost — and are already lost — across industries from civil aviation, aerospace, automotive and hospitality.

If Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda is to mean anything he must start with defending and supporting those jobs as an anchoring point for raising the quality of work across all regions of our country.

Take the example of Barnoldswick, home to 11,000 people. The jobs at the Rolls-Royce factory directly sustained 1,000 families and up to four times as many families in the supply chain and supporting industries. Together they contribute £1.1 billion to the regional GDP.

Examples such as this show that these are not isolated islands of decent, unionised work, but that their importance comes from the broader networks they sustain. When you let one fall, the rest follow like dominos.

Industrially speaking, our regions do not exist in glorious isolation, but in mutual co-dependency.

In fact, the configuration of modern industries with the long-reaching British and international supply chains have been the very thing that Conservative governments have resolutely refused to understand.

This current crisis has set an important precedent for large-scale action, yet still hostility to state intervention remains deeply ingrained into the Tories.

It is possible — perhaps even likely — that as Britain emerges from the government’s disastrous mishandling of the pandemic that the Tories’ old instincts will return.

They will turn once again to economists such as Professor Patrick Minford, who has seen in Brexit an opportunity to “run down” automotive and advanced manufacturing “in the same way we ran down the coal and steel industries.”

The gravest mistake the government could make is to repeat the very same mistakes of the past decade, where an increase in unemployment was met with damaging austerity policies and the creation of widespread insecure and low-paid work.

After all, the crisis has been significantly exacerbated by the fragile foundations of our economy due to the past decade of political choices.

There is widespread job and housing precarity, many more households are now closer to the financial edge than when we experienced the impact of the financial crash.

Moreover, we have a public sector decimated by a decade of austerity and years of industrial uncertainty, unable to withstand a shock.

No. From Rishi Sunak, we need to see a strategy, not limited to defensive actions or to short-term plans for the year ahead or even to fight for the next round of investment, as necessary as that is.

Our collective aim must be to proactively shape and transition the world of work to protect and advance the interests of our members, families and communities for the next five, 10 and 30 years.

This looks like a recovery co-ordinated by a national recovery council, alongside a series of regional development councils.

Such councils will work on the twin aims of recovery and transition industries to sustainable work.

A national recovery council could echo the National Economic Development Council abolished by the Conservative government in 1992.

Provided trade unions can participate meaningfully, both nationally and at a local level, the result would be to bring the experience and expertise of the trade unions from the shop floor and the voice of workers into the highest levels of decision-making to influence the long-term rebuilding of our economy.

We hold true to the belief that no-one knows their industries better than those who do the work, and no-one knows their communities better than those who live there.

Our proposal is that workers must have a collective say over the decisions shaping their future in an advanced and sustainable economy.

A Tory vision of sprinkling funding based on patronage — a few million pounds to unblock the Manchester rail bottleneck here, a few million for Humberside roads there — lacks any credibility or vision.

We need a proactive strategy for reshoring jobs, including a long-term commitment to the furlough scheme.

The government must remove the barriers to reshoring manufacturing jobs, including access to affordable energy, skills and finance.

Provide financial support, both centrally and regionally, to investment projects while providing access to credit and equity for SMEs and the wider manufacturing supply chain to invest in Britain.

These are among the proposals in a new report by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, out yesterday, that I have contributed to.

The manufacturing clusters and networks of supply right across Britain are the modern arteries of industry, and just as they were impacted by Covid-19, so too they can be used to drive prosperity.

With strategic support, such as funding for R&D, positive procurement strategies, access to skills and support for the further reshoring of supply chains, such clusters can drive a broader regional recovery.

Supporting industrial specialisation, such as aerospace, is a proven strategy.

Regions which are supported to specialise in key technologies with spill-over effects of R&D and supply in their surrounding areas will grow more rapidly through cluster formation than funding distributed arbitrarily for one-off investments.

Time will tell if the lessons of this crisis will be learnt and applied to the “levelling-up agenda,” or if it will be another slogan which will come to rest alongside George Osborne’s “March of the Makers,” which itself lies in the shadow of the hunkering wreckage of the “Northern Powerhouse.”

I am proud of our great army of shop stewards and activists who have been put to the test in a way that none of us could have foreseen.

Suppose that skill, experience and dedication can be brought to the table. In that case, it can lead our recovery and finally address the profound issues of inequality and division, across all regions and devolved countries, which have brought us to this point.

If the government is unable or unwilling to do it, we will do it ourselves.

By Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner

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