A former left-wing firebrand said to command strong trade union support, Margaret Beckett would not, on paper, seem the ideal candidate to lead New Labour’s attempts to woo the business community. But the former engineering apprentice from Norwich has a clear enthusiasm for the subject and her down to earth, no-nonsense approach reflects that of her target audience.
Labour’s industrial policy announcements to date have not exactly been headline grabbing, the party’s move towards the centre having given it little room for manoeuvre in terms of radical new initiatives.
`A Labour Government would not introduce sweeping changes,’ says Beckett, `nor signal a universal change in industrial policy.’
The roots of this thinking, she says, is that Labour is determined not to introduce change just for the sake of it. `If we find what is being done is working then we will keep it. Equally if there are problems we will try to solve them.’
The Office of Science and Technology will be left within the Department of Trade and Industry. `A whole number of solutions have been tried and none of them have been perfect. Movement in itself is disruptive and bad for morale. We think that people have only just settled from the last move and have concluded it is probably better to work with the system we inherit.’
However, `we do want the chief government scientist to be seen as a chief adviser to the Government rather than just serving the DTI.’
Where Beckett does want to move early is on competition law – to make it more prohibitive. This is again an area in which Labour and the Conservatives are in broad agreement.
Labour would also bring in a short bill to look at regulation of the privatised utilities. `Contrary to the rhetoric they don’t have their first duty, or even one of their primary duties, to the customer. We want a shift of emphasis, especially as their customers include the rest of industry. We must get the balance better than it is now.’
Labour’s new pro-industry image is based on its claim that it listens. An example of this is suspension of its plans to change the rules for takeovers and mergers, which would have put the emphasis on proving public interest.
Following criticism of the policy by the Commission on Public Policy and British Business earlier this year, it has asked Lord Borrie, former director general of the Office of Fair Trading, John Vickers of Oxford University and Bryan Sanderson, managing director of BP Chemicals to report on the issue.
Overall, Labour wants to stimulate exports, to give encouragement to, and support, manufacturing, provide practical support for engineers and basic science. It also wants to maintain the existing macro-economic environment, and the economic stability that entails.
Fine rhetoric indeed but, as many in industry have been heard to say, `where is the beef?.’
Beckett makes no bones about the gaps in detail of Labour’s industrial policy. `We are bound by the financial situation we inherit – certainly for a year to 18 months.’
Also, she says, the Government’s failure to publish details of DTI spending after last autumn’s Budget, has left it largely in the dark.
`The first thing we need to do if we get into power is to find out where the money is going and to ascertain where we can divert it to more useful purposes.’
As for Labour merely going through the motions of courting industry, Beckett concedes that it is `bound to be the case that both Labour and Conservative, in the run up to the election, will say that investment is very important, as are training and skills. These are genuine problems.
`But we have not had 18 years in power and the equivalent of £35m a day from the North Sea and privatisation receipts, in order to turn things round. We have no record of failure. The Conservatives have had a huge unparallelled opportunity, failed miserably and there is no reason to expect anything different from them in the future.’
Beckett describes the Thatcher years, in which manufacturing was ignored and undervalued, with obvious distaste. However she is quite prepared to credit Michael Heseltine for much of the recent change in focus to manufacturing.
`In the last two to three years there has been more encouragement for manufacturing. It has improved quite substantially but I still get the feeling it is as much lip service. I certainly don’t feel that Ian Lang has any great enthusiasm for manufacturing.
`The whole flavour of the Tories’ rhetoric is to drive standards and quality down. This is profoundly wrong. If the UK is to hold its own in the EU of the future we must provide products of the very highest quality. Yes, we need efficiency and cost effectiveness, but quality is the key selling point.
`We absolutely and wholeheartedly believe that manufacturing is the key to Britain’s wealth creating future – and always have.’
Beckett is adamant that the thorny issue of Europe and the Social Chapter should hold no fears for industry.
`There is no doubt that there is a great deal of anxiety in the business community about the Social Chapter, and that is really rather a pity. Much of this anxiety is based on what the Government says about it, which is frankly a load of rubbish.
`Labour would veto anything we did not agree with. Yes, some areas of Social Chapter legislation are down to qualified majority voting – thanks to Margaret Thatcher – but there is no precedent to expect Labour to give up the UK’s remaining rights of veto.
`The big question is do we want to be part of the EU or not? In the future we will be faced with a choice of accepting the Social Chapter or leaving the union. At the moment, if any harebrained schemes are suggested, we are not even in the room when they are discussed.’
Beckett is happy to retain many of the industrial initiatives of recent years, especially Modern Apprenticeships, Technology Foresight and Business Links – the last of which it claims was borrowed from Labour’s 1992 manifesto idea.
`We are not in a position to guarantee Business Link funding. If they are providing something of real value to the companies that go to them, then they ought to be able to be broadly self-funding.’
Labour is also to review Technology Foresight. `We have heard that much of what was done under the Foresight banner has now ground to a halt. So we want to review the situation and see if and how the process should be taken forward.’
Modern Apprenticeships also offer great potential, says Beckett. `There is a real shortage of trained engineers. We hear from companies all the time that even though good people are coming through the system, they need much more induction training because the equipment and facilities at the universities are behind the times.’
A former student apprentice in metallurgy, Beckett did a sandwich course with AEI in Manchester during 1961-66. In 1970 she took up a post as Labour research assistant.
`Modern Apprenticeships provide a way of recreating the experience I was fortunate to have. I would recommend an apprenticeship to anyone, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the different pattern of experience it gave you.’
Labour is committed to a tight spending regime, and is not promising any handouts to industry. But Beckett says Government can help in a myriad of different ways.
It can often provide industry with a helping hand by simply being seen to support UK companies bidding for international contracts. Labour also wants to reduce the burden of legislation on small and medium companies.
The Machine Tool Technologies Association and the Engineering Employers’ Federation have called in the past for capital allowances to encourage investment in industry, a call to which Beckett says she is quite receptive. `I am more sympathetic to the idea of capital allowances, than many other things.’ However, she covers herself by repeating the argument that capital allowances may only have value on a relatively short-term basis, at particular points in the business cycle. `They should not necessarily be given in perpetuity.’
Should Labour actually win the general election and Beckett be made secretary of state, she would like to be remembered as someone who did not promise anything that was not delivered and who was seen to have made the climate in which business can operate and succeed much more friendly: `Someone who played a part, only a part, in the revival of manufacturing, science and engineering in Britain.
`If I’m seen in that way by the practitioners in the field I am not terribly fussed if I get blown right up in the news media. If I had to choose between the two I would rather be obscure and successful and effective than a household name who actually wasn’t very effective.’
Why should the engineering fraternity vote Labour? `Because we actually do think that engineering matters and is key to Britain’s future and in the end the Tories don’t.’