Dr Ashok Kumar claims to be the first chemical engineer to be elected to Parliament. His stint as an MP lasted only six months, but if the opinion polls are anywhere near correct he will also be the second one come 2 May.
Under-representation of science, engineering and industry in Parliament is a serious problem, he believes. `It’s awful. It’s an absolute tragedy of the highest order. Parliament is over-represented by teachers, barristers, solicitors. We want to promote the work manufacturing industry does and the idea of industry and science excelling, but Parliament gets a slightly distorted view.’
Kumar says there were only six engineers in the last Parliament, and only 30 with degrees in science, who had not necessarily been practising in the field in which they had taken the degree.
`We have directors of companies, former trade union officials, shop stewards, but we don’t have enough middle management representation. Industry and manufacturing industry is the lifeblood of our economy. We need to encourage people with scientific, industrial and engineering backgrounds to make themselves available to stand for Parliament.’
More such MPs might have resisted the industrial policies of the mid-1980s when service industries were held to be eclipsing manufacturing. `That was the most ideological dogmatic period of destroying the economy. Even people like Alan Budd, the chief economic adviser to Mrs Thatcher, admitted they went too far. A third of our manufacturing sector just got wiped out. Two recessions in 10 years is absolutely scandalous. They were telling us at that time we could all live on selling hamburgers and the service economy and that is absolutely not true.’
He admits that the tone has changed now: `When you hear Mr Heseltine talk about intervening into the market, there is a difference of emphasis, and I’m glad to see some change.’
He lists priorities for an incoming Labour Government. `Long-term investment has to be the basic priority.’
Second is an emphasis on scientific innovation and design, and partnership between scientists and engineers in industry and academic circles. `There is some liaison but it needs to be led nationally far more strongly. I do believe in innovation in industry and academic circles working together much more forcefully.’ Technology Foresight is a good starting point `but it needs to be moved into another gear’.
Third, involving undergraduates in industry to encourage science and engineering graduates to come into industry at the end of their courses rather than going into `some other profession’.
Fourth, tackle the problem of making science and technological subjects more interesting in schools and reverse the 40% decline since 1983 in school students taking maths and science at A level.
Does he believe Labour’s drive to convince industry it is not hostile to its interests has worked? `I think we’ve made a lot of progress since 1992. Business leaders quite clearly recognise that Tony Blair and new Labour are different. What he says, he means.
`The change to Clause Four has ensured that the debate is no longer about nationalisation versus privatisation, it’s about modernisation or drift. Industry recognises that.’
John Major is `a decent man – the problem is his party. The right wing, 30 or 40 Eurosceptics, are determining his whole agenda. We don’t have respect in Europe because Europe doesn’t know where the Conservative party and the Government stands. Industry is on the whole united that we should be part of Europe and should be there at the forefront. New Labour provides that.’
But many in industry are against the minimum wage, the social chapter and the single currency. `Japan and the US have a minimum wage. Most of Europe has a minimum wage so how can it be so disastrous?’ He points out that industry will be represented on the commission to determine the level of the wage.
On the single currency he says we will do `what is in the best interests of this country’. It would have to be assessed against a set of criteria – including the likely effect on employment – but `we would seek the endorsement of the people through a referendum’.
On the Social Chapter, he points out that `most European Christian Democrat parties have accepted it, so what’s the problem?’ The powers it contains have been exaggerated, he argues. `You can’t be selective about Europe: out on this issue, in on this one. You’ve got to play your part in order to ensure respect, that you’re serious about being in Europe. And to influence decisions you have to be there rather than leaving an empty chair as the present prime minister has done. Mr Major is completely overlooking the disaster he’s creating in European eyes.’
On the influence a backbench MP can exert, Kumar says: `You don’t have power as such. But it’s the duty of an MP to speak up for what he or she sees as wrong.’ He cites parliamentary questions, and would hope to become a member of the trade and industry or science select committees.
He is not convinced by Conservative claims that the economy is booming. If it is, why have we dropped from 13th to 18th in the world productivity league, and why is unemployment still so high?
He says Labour’s message to business is: `We have a dynamic leader who has vision and will provide leadership in Government. We have listened to the business community and changed. New Labour is different. We have the policies to meet most of their requirements, to ensure a long-term successful economy. We will work in partnership with the private sector and the public sector to create a climate which will ensure success.’