The who, what and where of work

Karel Williams, Sukhdev Johal and Andrew Bowman introduce our 'The future isn't working' theme by looking at industrial strategy

October 15, 2012
7 min read

How to create new jobs in a flat-lining economy that has suffered structural unemployment for decades? George Osborne has called for a ‘march of the makers’, Ed Miliband talks about his preference for ‘producers’ over ‘predators’, and just about everyone says the UK must ‘rebalance the economy’ back towards manufacturing. On one level, it’s just more sound bites from a political class short of ideas. On another, something more significant is happening: industrial strategy is back.

The two words became taboo over the past 30 years, associated, in the victor’s history of neoliberalism, with discredited efforts at national planning during the 1960s and 70s.

As Britain changed course, manufacturing employment fell from 7 million in the 1970s to just over 5 million in the mid‑1980s. North Sea oil covered the macro-economic shock, but the decline continued through the 1990s and 2000s to reach just 2.8 million employed in manufacturing by 2008. Financial services never compensated, creating just 85,000 net new jobs between 1997 and 2008, concentrating its benefits in London. In the ex‑industrial regions, state-backed service industry jobs were created to plug the gap – an undisclosed strategy of Thatcher as well as New Labour.

With a mainstream political consensus now entrenched around the need for major public sector cuts – if not over the pace of cutting – many policymakers’ hopes for avoiding a worsening unemployment crisis are pinned on a manufacturing revival.

Banks have been gently encouraged to lend more to productive business, most recently via the Bank of England’s £80 billion ‘funding for lending’. Some state money has also been directed towards high tech industries, and a ‘green investment bank’ is also to be established, with £3 billion capital. However, these efforts have been tokenistic and disjointed, and are diminished further by slack demand in the economy as a result of austerity.

There is also a new interest in infrastructure. But much of this is fixated on grand projects like a third runway or HS2 rail, and there is no sign of the export-led revival that the coalition’s Office for Budget Responsibility predicted would save us from austerity.

Surveying strategies

So what are the progressive alternatives for job creation in manufacturing, and what are their limits? Proposals for a Green New Deal surfaced in 2008, proposing a Roosevelt-esque stimulus for green-tech, and the decarbonisation of housing and infrastructure to create an army of ‘green collar’ workers. This continues to provide the main source of inspiration, backed by economists like Mariana Mazzucato, who are urging an increased role for the state in industry.

In high tech industries like software and biotech, commonly perceived as the offspring of a risk-taking private sector, Mazzucato argues that the state is often the key innovator, with private companies joining in at a later stage once the opportunity for profit is clear. Three-quarters of new molecular bio-pharmaceutical entities come from publicly-funded laboratories. The real danger is not market failure, Mazzucato claims, but ‘opportunity failure’ as major transformative technologies are passed by because the private sector won’t bear the risk.

The TUC follows a similar line, urging government to ‘pick sectors’ – like clean energy – which can drive the next industrial ‘mega trend’. Proposals for a state investment bank created from RBS, as articulated in the Compass Plan B report, have gathered much support – indeed, as Red Pepper goes to press Vince Cable has announced that the government will establish a ‘business bank’. It seems likely that this institution will, like the green investment bank, be too small and not even a bank in the true sense. But it could – if operated in the manner Compass and others suggest – target lending towards socially-useful industries against the economic cycle and into areas the private sector neglects.

The limits of planning

These efforts have expanded the realm of what’s thinkable in the UK and have proposed worthwhile changes, but there are other areas industrial strategists should be focusing on. Industrial strategy needs to engage with the pervasive problem of dysfunctional business models. Making shareholder value central to the strategies of large firms has created a culture of short-termism, focused on the next set of financial results rather than investments in research and development or the workforce. Since the mid-1990s investments in fixed capital (machinery, equipment and the like) have declined by a third among UK companies.

Recognition of the problem has grown in elite circles, and featured in a government study led by the economist John Kay earlier this year, but goes nowhere near far enough.

Worse still, UK manufacturing suffers from problems of broken supply chains. Large firms which sustain chains of small and medium sized companies have disappeared. The UK has less than 2,000 factories employing more than 200 workers, while the number of companies employing 10 or fewer has doubled over the last 25 years. So when a factory like Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port is assembling kits of imported components, expansion of output increases imports as much as exports.

A foie-gras industrial policy of pumping credit into the economy will achieve little, as it will be forcing funds into manufacturers with these organisational problems.

The absence of geography

The striking thing about most industrial policy discussions is the absence of geography. Most pitch at ‘the UK economy’, but this is an abstraction, given the divergence in needs and capabilities between London and the south and east, and the ex-industrial regions of the north and west.

The abolition of Regional Development Agencies continues a pattern of centralisation. Efforts to revitalise manufacturing should be implicitly regional, because while over half the value produced by financial services comes from London and the south east, manufacturing is spread almost evenly. However even during the pre-crisis boom, only London and the south created a significant proportion of new jobs in the private sector, and they stand better placed to benefit from most new industrial strategies – particularly those focusing on ‘industries of the future’, as Cameron calls them.

The business parks of Cambridge and tech startups of east London may provide export success in software or pharmaceuticals, but they have little to do with the West Midlands’ broken supply chains or the north’s structural unemployment.

A geographically sensitive industrial policy would pay attention to the more mundane industries of everyday life, which are broadly distributed according to population and could still generate mass employment. Food manufacturing, for example, is the UK’s largest industrial sector by employment with more than 400,000 workers.

Tax breaks should be targeted at companies producing regional employment increases (rather than relocations), and socially-useful products.

More than this though, economic regionalism should focus less on attracting firms and more on stopping funds leaving: redirecting state pension fund investments to local needs, regionalising supply chains wherever possible and rolling back damaging privatisations.

There are existing possibilities then for a new kind of industrial policy which creates employment all around the UK, but also recognises that job creation is not an end in itself, but part of an economic system which provides for social and environmental necessities and spreads its benefits more evenly.

The article draws upon research on industrial policy carried out at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), where the authors are based. Research reports are freely available at www.cresc.ac.uk

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself