Manufacturing matters: How to deliver a real march of the makers…

08 April 2015

By Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary

Remember this from chancellor George Osborne’s 2011 budget speech when he said he wanted to see: “a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”? 

As with so much of the Tory led coalition government it was merely a burst of rhetoric that did not match reality.  

The Tory led coalition government promised to rebalance the economy - it didn’t happen. We need long-term growth - but what we get are short-term fixes. We need investment – but what we get are too many companies putting share price first and foremost. We need a highly skilled stable workforce – what we get are low wages in a precarious working environment.

The ‘March of the Makers’ no longer figures in Cameron and Osborne’s plans nor is it mentioned in their speeches. Their silence on manufacturing and industrial policy is deafening. 

In a stark analysis of the UK economy the journalist and political economist, Will Hutton, points out too many of our manufacturing giants have gone or are under pressure to deliver high short-term profits.   Companies such as ICI and GEC did not have owners concerned to promote their competitiveness and long-term value.   As Hutton writes what we have instead are companies that are:  “…chips in the portfolios of global asset managers who had no constitutional, legal or cultural obligation towards them. They were ownerless corporations. Their great German rivals, BASF and Siemens – securely owned by long-term investors – took the Rolls-Royce route. Today Siemens is Europe’s largest engineering company, BASF the world’s largest chemical company. Their British rivals have literally disappeared. Rolls-Royce, free from concerns about hourly movements in its share price, has gone on to be one of our last remaining great industrial companies.”

This assessment pulls no punches and is in line with the warning of Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey: “We cannot continue under a government that ignores manufacturing and then complains that the books do not balance.  We need a government that recognises the vital importance of manufacturing to the UK economy and recognises the added value manufacturing brings for sustainable, decent jobs, quality apprenticeships, highly skilled workers and vibrant communities – that government can only be Labour.” 

Manufacturing needs to be at heart of our economy. Make no mistake if we don’t do this we will again be heading for another crash. 

And let’s not forget, despite the siren voices of the coalition that the crash was all the fault of the last Labour government - it wasn’t.  It was the get rich quick, anything goes attitude of greedy bankers and financial service companies and it was economic crash that almost brought UK manufacturing to its knees, not Labour or the workforce. 

With inequality raging Labour knows that the way to close the gap is the recognition that trade unions are an essential force for a decent society, and as guarantors of jobs and wages.   

There is also much talk of a ‘productivity puzzle’. This isn’t because UK workers don’t deliver the goods it is as Geoff Tily in the TUC’s economic department argues that “weak productivity is the consequence of weak growth and weak wages, not the cause.” 

In manufacturing Labour is putting in place policies that Unite has long advocated - polices that will lead to an economy that benefits all of us and not just the tiny elite at the top.   

Among these commitments Labour has pledged to:

  • Give investors a duty to act in the interests of ordinary savers and prioritise the long-term growth of companies
  • Change takeover rules by restricting voting to investors who already hold shares
  • Improve the link between pay and performance by ensuring executive pay packages are transparent by publishing the ratio of the total pay of their top earner compared to their average employees
  • Require investment and pension fund managers to disclose how they vote and introduce binding votes on remuneration packages
  • Tackle short-termism by reforming takeover rules
  • Put employee representatives on remuneration committees
  • Create thousands of new skilled apprenticeships

Unite also gave evidence to the Cole Commission set up by Labour’s Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna released today (8 April) which argues for sustained growth we need manufacturing to be at the heart of the economy. 

As Cole reports we are trading in a different world and the current system in the UK is too complex and too fragmented.  Cole also accepts something that Unite has long argued for in the automotive and aerospace industries and that is support of the domestic supply chain (reshoring).

With the Tories and Ukip fighting like rats in a sack over EU membership this interim report is a timely reminder that membership of the European Union will help us achieve many of these objectives.   

On 7 May we will be voting in the most important general election in decades for our economy, our NHS and our manufacturing sector.    

The Labour leadership has come out fighting with a raft of radical policies.  Today’s announcement that the very wealthy can dodge paying their taxes by claiming non-dom tax status despite living in the UK is only the latest. 

So if we really do want a ‘Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers’  there is only way to vote and that is to vote for a Labour government.