Talking industrial strategy at the Labour Party conference

Industrial strategy and the changing engineering skills landscape loomed large at the Labour Party conference this week. Paul Jackson reports

It was standing-room-only for any events mentioning artificial intelligence or the next industrial revolution at fringe meetings during the Labour Party Conference in Brighton this week.

This was promising news as I went in search of an industrial strategy at the first of two party conference visits this year, with the Conservatives to follow in Manchester next week.

The events always feature set-piece rabble rousing on the conference floor with stacks of sound bites for the six and ten o’clock news but out on the fringe everything is less scripted and can give a better sense of future direction and the substance behind the rhetoric. Marking the 21st anniversary of my first visit to a party conference, that first time in Blackpool, much has changed for all parties.

John McDonnell highlighted the changing pattern of work, the need for investment in science and technology and just how much the jobs of the future will be different

Monday is the day for business at Labour, with a more structured and quite expensive Business Forum and the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s speech on the economy. Reports of that speech were dominated by commitments to nationalisation, which could have a significant impact on the engineering sector because the targets are rail, energy, water, the Royal Mail and some or even all of the Private Finance Initiative that drove construction sector growth for a decade. But, McDonnell also highlighted the changing pattern of work, the need for investment in science and technology and just how much the jobs of the future will be different.

At the CBI-sponsored fringe McDonnell was challenged for understating the scale of change, being too “conservative”, in the changing pattern of work by finance champion Tim Hames, Director General of BVCA, the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association. Hames predicted that half of all current jobs would disappear to automation by 2033.

The implication for skills was recognised by shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden when he told a devolution and industrial strategy fringe that the silos of education and training needed to go. “We are in a world where FE [further education], HE [higher education] and online learning are merging much faster than most policy makers understand,” said Marsden, calling for an approach to developing the workforce for higher productivity occupations and abandoning the approach of “Any job will do” which he attributed to the Department of Work and Pensions.

Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, home of the Port Talbot steel works, told an infrastructure meeting his analysis. “We’ve been guilt of three cardinal sins on skills,” he said, characterising those sins and being too centralised, divorcing skills and education from the needs of the economy and tinkering too much.

There is no shortage of analysis when it comes to the challenge faced by the politicians of all parties in establishing a credible industrial strategy. Brigitte Andersen, CEO of the BIG Innovation Centre and an economist by background was critical of the process. “We’re running Industrial Strategy without any diagnostic tools,” said Andersen at a packed Aveva and Policy Exchange meeting focused on digital disruption. Whether that session was packed because of the topic or perhaps the appearance of Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester and one of Labour’s most powerful politicians, is not clear. But Burnham was very clear on his ambition for the region, calling for a UCAS-style system for all apprenticeships and making clear that his view of smarter cities went beyond better computer control of transport and traffic lights. “I think the smartest cities of all,” said Burnham, “will be those that link to opportunity.”