Jeremy Corbyn on engineering skills, Brexit and the destructive power of unregulated finance

In a wide ranging and well-received keynote speech at the EEF’s annual conference, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn outlined how a Labour government would address some of manufacturing’s key issues. The following article presents edited extracts of what he had to say. 

Jeremy Corbyn

The contributions of manufacturing to our economy cannot be understated, and the case for supporting more manufacturing jobs and industries is undeniable. And yet for too long Government hasn’t done enough to support you.

Businesses are crying out for infrastructure investment. We are lagging behind other leading countries, but the Government simply isn’t delivering.

That’s why we have pledged to create a National Transformation Fund to upgrade our transport, energy and digital infrastructure so that it is worthy of the 21st Century.

Engineering Skills

We must also invest in our people as well as our physical infrastructure.

We have, on the one hand, university graduates who can’t find a suitable job while thousands of underemployed workers can’t get the skills they need to advance. And on the other hand, businesses are struggling to recruit workers with the right skills.

Time and again, businesses tell me how difficult it is to hire employees with the skills they need. And that far too often school leavers are unprepared for the workplace.

Labour’s National Education Service will tackle that problem head-on, providing free, life-long learning to all, so that anyone can retrain or upskill at any point in their life.

The Tories’ approach to Brexit is threatening to turn our skills crisis into a catastrophe

We will put vocational education, too often the poor relation of our education system, at the heart of the National Education Service ensuring that science and technical learning starts early in primary schools.

And we will build links with industry into the National Education Service, to make sure that our education system keeps pace with the changing needs of our economy, expanding the type of training that qualifies under the Apprenticeship Levy so that businesses can actually use it for the skills they need.

Brexit: business must not withdraw from European markets.

The Tories’ approach to Brexit is threatening to turn our skills crisis into a catastrophe, especially for manufacturers who rely on recruiting skilled workers from overseas. Labour said from the start; we would give an unconditional guarantee to EU citizens of their right to stay in the UK. Not just now but during the transition period as well.

This is not just because of the valuable role EU citizens play in our economy and in many of your businesses, but because they are people who have built a life here. Unlike the Tories, we will not use people, mothers, fathers, neighbours, friends as bargaining chips.

Brexit is for many an emotive subject. But for business, it is first and foremost a practical matter. To make decisions about where, when, perhaps even whether to invest, you need to know what markets you will have access to, what regulations and product standards you will be subject to, who you will be able to recruit, what will happen to our supply chains, which we all know are currently integrated across many national borders.

We are leaving the EU, but our businesses must not withdraw from European markets. Business needs clarity and with four out of six of the Government’s “Road to Brexit” speeches already delivered, the Tories approach to Brexit is if anything less clear.

Jeremy Corbyn

Manufacturing and finance

It’s not just in its approach to Brexit that the Government is failing to put the economy first. For too long manufacturing has been undervalued.

For all their warm words, whether Osborne’s “March of the Makers” or this government’s new-found enthusiasm for the words ‘industrial strategy’, for decades the Conservatives have created, encouraged and sustained a system that rewards those who lend and speculate over those who make things.

Finance is the grease that oils the wheels of our economy, and without it, economic activity would seize up

Let me be clear, finance has a central and essential role to play in a functioning economy. Without access to finance, how would the entrepreneur or business person just starting out find the means to get their idea off the ground? How would a growing company afford new equipment that will make their business more productive and more profitable? Or expand their activities by opening new premises?

Finance is the grease that oils the wheels of our economy, and without it, economic activity would seize up.

But when private debt is twice the size of the real economy, when traders no longer understand the products they are trading and banks are funding speculation, rather than productive investment, something has gone grossly wrong. Banks should be helping the real economy not suffocating it.

For forty years, deregulated finance has progressively become more powerful. Its dominance over industry, obvious and destructive; its control of politics, pernicious and undemocratic.

The next Labour Government will be the first in 40 years to stand up for the real economy. We will take decisive action to make finance the servant of industry not the masters of all.

Protecting critical industry

The reign of finance doesn’t stop at the gates of the City of London. Its extractive logic has spread into all areas of life with short-term performance and narrow shareholder value prioritised over long-run growth and wider economic benefit.

Take GKN, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious engineering firms with a big factory in Telford where I grew up. It employs 6,000 workers across the UK, contributes an estimated £1.3bn to the economy, paid a healthy £174m in tax each year and invested £561m in Research and Development in the UK alone.

And yet GKN is currently facing a hostile, allegedly debt-fuelled takeover bid by Melrose, a company with a history of opportunistic asset-stripping.

It’s an all too familiar story. We rightly praise the growth of companies like GKN and their location in the UK. And yet when we are faced with the possible destruction of that company, the Government refuses to act.

That’s why the next Labour government will broaden the scope of the ‘public interest test’ to include explicit consideration of the needs of our economy taking advantage of new freedoms outside of the EU to allow Government to intervene to protect our industrial base.

An important step towards reprogramming the economy, so that it works for the many, not the few. Reprogramming our economy; to reward good business practices, reining in speculative finance so that it serves – not distorts the whole UK economy – backed up by a strong industrial strategy, as well as investing in our physical infrastructure and our people. This approach is vital if we are to develop our manufacturing strength. That is what the next Labour Government is committed to working with you to achieve.

Edited extracts of a speech given by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the EEF’s 2018 annual conference