Britain needs an industrial strategy

The need for an industrial strategy couldn’t come at a more crucial time for our country, economy and our trade union movement.

It should be a national endeavour that becomes even more important following the EU referendum vote. I was delighted to make the case to this year’s Trades Union Congress to build a modern industrial strategy that will engage the ideas and perspectives of workers in every region, devolved nation and sector.

A practical plan to grow key sectors of the economy will inject confidence at a time of uncertainty whether in the boardroom or the shop floor. It’s incredible but since 2010 the government ministers actually took pride in having no industrial strategy. Their plan was to have no plan. ‘Let the free market rip’. Look where it left us. It was down to the labour movement not the government to raise the alarm and defend our steel industry. Sajid Javid shrugged his shoulders and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to face the workers the government was prepared to write off. Steel unions including GMB stood up for the industry and together with the support from all trade unions we remade the case for an industrial strategy to the country.

For many places however, the damage had been done. Not just to local economies and vital supply chains but to workers and their families. Elsewhere the rhetoric has had no relationship with reality and opportunities have been missed. Guess the two areas with the highest non-business Research and Development investment right now? London and Buckinghamshire. Not the ‘rebalanced economy’ we were promised by Cameron and Osborne.

It is in these circumstances that we should at least carefully welcome the fact that the new Prime Minister belatedly recognises the need for an industrial strategy. Teresa May has even included ‘industrial strategy’ in the name of a new government department. Beyond changing the departmental stationary and office letterhead, we are yet to hear of anything of significance.  Given their dismal record, it is a task that will always be too important to entrust to the Tory party.

We urgently need to rebuild Britain following the failures of the recent past, learning the lessons from the financial crash and past government neglect.  The trade union movement can provide leadership in making a modern industrial strategy for the UK a reality. There is a once in a generation opportunity to be at the forefront of breaking down old barriers. A UK industrial strategy that engages and employs significantly more women and people from ethnic minorities is vital. This is not just for opening up opportunities for all but for giving the UK the best chances of success. 

The creation of an industrial strategy cannot be in isolation to other government economic policies. Continued austerity policies and savage public sector cuts will undermine all efforts to get Britain’s industrial future on track. Austerity and endless cuts lead to reduced investment in national priorities, less co-ordination and weaker engagement and planning. In contrast, a successful industrial strategy that will grow our economy, create decent paid jobs with taxes will benefit the whole nation and help fund public services.

At GMB our vision for an industrial strategy is a positive one. We don’t want to be forever defending industries, but growing them. We don’t want a zero hours future for our kids but jobs with skill, purpose and pride. We don’t want the brutal false economies of austerity but an industrial future that powers a national recovery to be shared by all. The future seems uncertain today, but if we get it right there is much to gain.

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