Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech in Birmingham entitled ‘Build it in Britain’ in which he called for changes that would reinvigorate British manufacturing and take it to heights reminiscent of the glorious 1950s, when Britain was building heaven. It’s funny that both our main parties often look backwards.
Perhaps the public do too.
We’ve been here before. Gordon Brown said something similar about British jobs for British workers a few years back. The rallying cry for jobs and manufacturing to buck the globalisation trend and remain in the UK has been made many times, and it’s as seductive a message as ever. While Brown’s call to action was derided, a change has occurred that allows Corbyn’s message to waft out across the country and receive praise.
Corbyn used much of his speech to bash one successful but unpopular sector of the economy- the finance sector -while praising one that has been more anaemic but retains public support – manufacturing. In his world, the one holds back the other; ‘dirty money’ (his words) in the City must be chased out to allow greater investment in the infrastructure that will seduce builders back to Britain.
Build more houses, create more jobs, hit the City
It’s a struggling logic, and one his City Minister Jonathan Reynolds will struggle to translate when he talks to banks and other financial services companies, given the taxes the financial sector provide to the Exchequer. But it is popular, and as an opposition that’s all that really matters. Corbyn’s job is to win votes at almost any cost Build more houses, create more jobs, hit the City. It was all in there. But beyond the economic illiteracy, there has been a more worrying trend across Corbyn’s economic narrative in recent years, and it appears to be hostility to the international element, so evident in the financial services sector in particular.
Whether it’s procurement tenders or overseas ownership of companies, Labour has tacked toward a more hostile position on overseas investment and ownership in recent years. Trade Unions have also jumped on this, alleging that train passengers are funding the foreign state-owned companies who run much of the network. In his speech, Corbyn is distinctly nativist, and while he won’t like it, also a little Trump-esque. Taken in conjunction with Corbyn’s less than enthusiastic view of the European Union and his reluctance to see British military intervention overseas, it’s clear that the Labour Party under his leadership has become distinctly less internationalist, and a lot more parochial.
Despite this inability to go against the globalisation flow, the message about building more in Britain remains curiously popular in the country. Never mind that no Government has managed to achieve something that would be popular and deliver more jobs and skills. Why hasn’t it worked? And why is Corbyn’s message still popular? Partially, because he’s got a point, and partially because the public retain confidence in Britain that some in the Westminster bubble lack.
One of the key messages in his speech was his desire to tweak procurement rules to make it easier for British companies to win orders, and he makes a good case that international rules allow countries to favour their own markets on issues such as defence. The Government for its part remains committed to the widest possible competition for the Royal Navy’s fleet tankers that could be built here in Britain, and that appears to the public to defy economic logic and common sense.
More skills is a popular message – The Government needs to invest to support that view
For while the Government’s position is that competition drives down the cost to the taxpayer, it doesn’t take into account potential loss of jobs and skills should that work go overseas. The case for free trade is well made in the UK, but the Government does a less good job at explaining whether it is better to buy foreign goods than do things domestically and retain the skills. It’s a message the Conservative Party needs to get better at telling.
The frustrated desire to see Britain build like it’s the 1959 is partially why voters have been so fed up since the economic crash. Wages have grown only slowly, some towns still look depressed and depressing. But the news is full of the rich and powerful enjoying life like nothing really that major happened to the British economy just 9 years ago. And then the public see the Government deliberately- in their view – throwing good money overseas when there are perfectly capable people at home to do the work. It just seems to defy logic.
More skilled jobs for British workers is a popular message, but the trouble is, its core aim never comes to pass. In a world where decisions are made by multinationals chasing the cheapest location, the UK has to be special. The Government should be more honest about that, but if it wants us to be special, it needs to do a better job of investing in the skills that would support the public’s view that the UK can do the work. In his speech, Corbyn wondered aloud why, despite having the capacity to build trains, our factories often lose out to overseas competition. Well, the reality is because it’s a competition, but in asking that question, Corbyn taps into the British zeitgeist that we can do this.
The Government needs a better – and more positive – answer to the sense across the country that the UK is being unfairly held back, and it could do worse than to start by making the case that better British skills and capabilities can go hand in hand with continued international competition to keep costs down. Capitalism shouldn’t be that difficult for the Conservative Party.
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