For many in industry the next six weeks of political activity hold little attraction, with the focus of campaigns from left and right falling on the big social issues of education, health and crime.
Industrial policy on investment, research and development and innovation are going to struggle to make the headlines. And engineering’s lobby groups will have to work hard to get their message across.
So, a round of applause goes to the UK Steel Association, which made an early start on the pre-election campaigning this week with a briefing pack to prospective parliamentary candidates in 80 constituencies. Each pack sets out what the association wants and briefs candidates on the need for low inflation, low interest rates and competitive exchange rates as priorities for the next Government. At a practical level, the election period will mean a hiatus for parts of industry. Little Government-funded or officially-influenced business can be done without the support of all the political parties.
Contracts from the MoD and through the Private Finance Initiative will be held up. Reports from science and technology select committees, new ideas from ministers, and decisions on DTI funding for scores of small-scale but important industrial initiatives will all be on hold.
At an unofficial level organisations such as the CBI’s National Manufacturing Council have been holding fire for some time on strategy – waiting to see the make-up of our new political masters.
The mood of industry has been hard to measure this year; there is little doubt that an impending election has encouraged a wait-and-see attitude. Firms which enjoyed a bumper 1996 have seen orders stutter – and no one is sure why. Without doubt industrial confidence is teetering, and many are now looking to beyond the election for confidence to build up.
In most election campaigns, uncertainty comes from the fear of what a new Government might do. But not this time.
As The Engineer will report in future issues, both Labour’s Margaret Beckett and the Conservatives’ Ian Lang offer more of the same. In an in-depth interview Lang will argue that his party has done well in creating a stable economic environment and that it is the best recipe for industrial confidence. For her part, Beckett is reluctant to disagree. She too promises more of the same – changes to industrial policy from an incoming Labour Government would be at the margins.
Industry must lobby hard to drive its messages home over the next few weeks – for once there will be hundreds of MPs on either side keen to be seen to listen.