Candidates give spin on industry

What should the next government do to help manufacturing and promote innovation? Liam O’Brien puts the question to three engineers — in two constituencies — who are standing in the general election.

Anyone listening to the Conservative and Labour prospective parliamentary candidates for Leeds North West could be forgiven for thinking the two are planning to represent very different areas of the country.

While sitting Labour MP Harold Best presents a picture of a buoyant Leeds engineering sector, the view of Adam Pritchard, the Conservative contender, is one of local manufacturers groaning under the weight of red tape and heavy taxation.

At the last general election the constituency was wrested from the Conservatives for the first time since its creation in 1950. It is Leeds’ main middle class residential area, containing a high proportion of non-manual workers. But it includes some inner-city wards which have eroded Conservative support.

Best, an electrical technician for Leeds Education Authority until three years ago, has a majority of 3,844. ‘The facts speak for themselves,’ he says. ‘Unemployment has fallen from 6% to 3% in my area. Manufacturing is buoyant — it is benefiting from the stable market conditions Labour has been able to deliver. And this follows the catastrophe under the Tories when interest rates went sky high and manufacturing was stripped of its skills base.’

Pritchard, who until last year was marketing manager at VAW West Yorkshire Foundries, cuts it rather differently: ‘Manufacturing is suffering enormously. There is a lot more regulation than three years ago. What with the working time directive and the family income credit, employers are being turned into benefit offices by this government. And there is £5bn of extra business taxation.’

The two do not dispute that the city’s employment base has shifted from old mill to new, high-tech industries, reversing several decades of rising unemployment. Both welcome the new call centres and superstores that have sprung up as a result of the long economic upswing, and agree that the city is enjoying something of a boom.

But, while Best says the upswing is lifting services and manufacturing, Pritchard claims it is heavily skewed in favour of services. ‘We are in danger of losing the manufacturing. Vickers Tanks is moving, West Yorkshire Foundries is not doing so well because of the pound — I could go on,’ he says.

Unsurprisingly, the two politicians have markedly differing views about what the key issues are for manufacturing.

Best says skills shortages are critical, but sees Labour’s spending plans for education and training as a boost to manufacturing. ‘Education is crucial for the sector’s medium and long-term health. It has suffered from skills shortages over the past 15 years and Labour wants to put that right.

‘The UK has got to be an economic power on the back of its know-how and its technological edge. We have been surrendering that to our competitors and need to change this.’

He adds that entry to the euro zone would remove the exchange rate vulnerability of Leeds’ exporters, which have been hit hard by the high value of sterling against the euro.

Pritchard would rather see government focusing on freeing business from its red tape burden than embarking on closer union with the rest of the EU. Chief villain in this respect is the Climate Change Levy, which he claims is just another stealth tax.

He believes manufacturers would gain massively from the deregulation commission the Tories propose to set up if elected. Pritchard says it would cut red tape and compensate business for shouldering additional bureaucracy.

Unfortunately for Pritchard, opinion polls suggest industry will have to wait for the benefits of a deregulation commission — at least for another five years.