Discussion of industrial policy should not be neglected

Stuart Nathan
Features editor

The glaring absence of any discussion of industrial policy in the election campaign so far is disappointing and alarming. This election will potentially have more effect on industry and jobs than any in recent memory.

We are almost exactly halfway through the General Election campaign: four weeks since the vote in Parliament to hold the election, and four weeks and a day until the election itself. So far, there has been one subject that has been conspicuously absent from any party pronouncements: industrial policy.

Prime minister Theresa May is unwilling to reveal her plans ahead of formal Brexit negotiations

Not everybody will see this as a bad thing. One of the criticisms most frequently levelled against politicians is that they are too concerned with serving corporate interests and not concerned enough with matters that affect so-called ordinary voters. But while it is true that industry and companies do not vote, they do employ people who do, and the prosperity of industry is inextricably linked to the stability and sustainability of those people’s jobs. This should surely be a matter which deserves some attention during even this unusually short election campaign (one drawback of the fixed term act which Theresa May overruled in calling the election was it led to torturously over-long campaign periods preceded by a tedious “phoney war” period).

One factor might be that it is simply not that long since the government published its industrial policy – the Green Paper outlining its thinking came out in January this year – and it is therefore fair to assume that if the Conservatives win next month’s election, they will simply continue to implement this policy characterised by its 10 pillars intended to set out a stable platform for industrial growth and the rebuilding of skills (we reported on the Green Paper at the time: see below). But response to the green paper was decidedly muted – even the CBI confined its praise to saying that it was better to have industrial strategy than not to have one – and the Labour Party line was that it was sketchy and needed far more detail to avoid simply being a mishmash of existing policy and “spin rather than substance”.

Technical education and regional approach at heart of new Industrial Strategy

It could simply be that the leadership of the opposition parties have decided that concentrating on issues such as the future of the National Health Service and housing have more resonance with a wider range of voters than talking about industry, as these are issues which consistently feature highly in polls of public concerns. However, we can’t get away from one fact: with the Brexit negotiations looming – and in fact the main reason given for calling the election at all – this vote will have more effect on industry than any other in recent memory.

The importance of the Brexit negotiations to industry cannot be overstated. One of the main opportunities thrown up by the UK’s severing of ties with the European Union is that it will free businesses from what many see as unreasonable, burdensome and unnecessary regulation and allow the country to define rules and draw up agreements that are more advantageous for trade. Theresa May has consistently argued that she cannot reveal too much of the UK’s demands in public ahead of formal negotiations, and she was of course on the Remain side during the referendum campaign (although not the most vocal campaigner). But the lack of any discussion at all is disappointing and, it has to be said, not a little alarming.

Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has not yet discussed Labour policy in any detail

It’s often said that what business hates most of all is uncertainty. And uncertainty is what we are facing. We are already seeing worrying, if unsurprising, signs that some businesses are making contingency plans to move away from the UK in the event of a “bad” Brexit negotiation outcome, and decisions including investments are being delayed. It’s not just down to the Conservative party to raise this subject: during an election campaign the opposition parties do not have to follow any lead and can announce what they like when they like. But the shadow business secretary has been so silent that I have just had to look up who it is (Rebecca Long-Bailey, for any readers who were equally in the dark: she was on the BBC’s Question Time programme this week, but apart from criticising the UK’s record of investment in industry and innovation compared to other OECD members didn’t put forward any concrete policies of her own).

As mentioned above, there is still a month to go before the election, and it is quite possible that the next four weeks will see a plethora of announcements about industrial policy and we will all be far more informed about what each of the parties wants to see in Britain’s trade and industry future. We at The Engineer certainly hope so. But based on the way things have been going so far, it has to be said that we are not holding our collective breath.