This month’s European elections may have failed to motivate the average voter, with turnout at an all-time low across the UK. But Malcolm Harbour, motor industry expert and new Conservative MEP for the West Midlands, believes there are many reasons to take an interest.
`A lot of legislation is bound up with the single market, environmental policy, employment policy and trade. All those are issues where I think it is important that a business case is presented,’ he says.
He believes more people with manufacturing experience should try politics. `We can bring certain sorts of no-nonsense practical skills, but we can also know the right sort of questions to ask on legislation which affects manufacturing.’
Too many European laws impose costs which can make European businesses uncompetitive, Harbour says.
Companies can add more value to their products, but EU requirements – such as the need to hold works councils – could make their goods too expensive to compete.
Harbour says the European Commission is taking a more hands-off approach to competition. `One of our manifesto commitments was to hand back power to national governments. `There’s a lot of legislation where national governments should be more empowered to make decisions.’
Harbour is staunchly anti-euro. In the long term, he thinks the exchange rate between sterling and the euro will become less volatile.
However, one area where he does see a role for European institutions is in their use of research funds. He cites the example of the US government, which uses its defence budget to carry out pre-competitive research which can be used by companies in the private sector.
His knowledge of such research programmes stems from the automotive consultancy he set up in 1989, Harbour Wade Brown, and from his role as director of the International Car Distribution Programme. Car companies supplied data on distribution to ICDP. This was used to create benchmarks and show companies how to improve their performance.
`Industry can share a tremendous amount by sharing its pre-competitive research, without in any way diminishing its competitive position,’ says Harbour. `There is also big scope for pre-competitive technical research.’
Some of the ICDP work straddles both fields, such as the so-called three-day car programme. This is aiming to examine the supply chain to reduce the time taken in building a car – from sheet metal cutting to final delivery – to three days.
Harbour is confident that the programme, which will report in 2002, will succeed. `We’re convinced it’s not a problem of technology, it’s a problem of manufacturing and system organisation.’
Harbour has spent all his working life in the motor industry. His first job was at the then British Motor Corporation’s Longbridge plant as an engineering apprentice in 1967. After five years as a design and development engineer, he moved into product planning.
`I found that graduates who had started at the same time as me in marketing and commercial jobs got company cars and much better pay. I suspect that is still the case in a lot of places.’
During the 1970s and 1980s Harbour worked in management jobs at BMC, British Leyland and Rover. He was involved in developing new models, restructuring, plant closures and consolidating around the Rover brand. Ultimately Harbour became director of overseas sales. He is particularly proud of managing to make a success of the Mini in Japan.
But he also had political ambitions, and was selected as the Conservative candidate for the Birmingham constituency at the 1989 European election. `After that I decided to work on my own and look for a market niche because I wanted enough room to go into politics.’
Birmingham voted Labour in 1989, but Harbour’s consultancy became a success. Ten years later, he again had to choose between business or politics. `I thought long and hard and decided that this would probably be my last chance. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,’ he says.
Malcolm Harbour at a glance
Education: MA Mechanical Sciences, Trinity College, Cambridge.
First job: Engineering apprentice, British Motor Corporation, Longbridge.
Career: Director of overseas sales at Rover until 1989. Founder partner, Harbour Wade Brown and director of the International Car Distribution Programme. Elected MEP for West Midlands in 1999.
Interests: Motor racing, singing, cooking