Jeremy Corbyn’s recent speech to engineering and manufacturing employers has ( as is generally the case!) been misrepresented. Launching Labour’s Build it in Britain, Corbyn has been accused of wanting to establish a ‘protectionist’ blanket around UK manufacturing and by implication being ‘pro-Brexit’ even though it’s questionable whether there’s anything in EU legislation that would prevent this.
Yet, in arguing that all state contracts should be awarded to UK companies, Corbyn was restating Labour’s commitment to rebuilding the manufacturing sector and by implication, halting the drift to low-paid, insecure and zero hours work, by creating thousands of skilled jobs.
Likewise, Labour’s proposals for channelling £250 billion worth of funds through a National Investment Bank, linked to regional investment plans, creating a more accountable financial sector and upping expenditure for education and skills are in sharp contrast to anything offered by Theresa May.
Beyond this however, Labour must do some broader thinking – accepting that the damage done by the Tories in recent years has intensified but not caused the decline in UK manufacturing and recognising that because of changes in consumer demand, all the world’s major economies are to varying degrees effectively becoming service economies. With the likelihood that most of manufacturing will be automated by the middle of the twenty first century, then hoping the sector will restore employment opportunities is unrealistic. Work could start on developing a post-industrial strategy. The aim would be to ensure that the only alternative to deindustrialisation is not the polarisation of income and the unfettered expansion of ‘precariat’ work.
For a party built on the back of an industrial working class and its trade unions however, this is easier said than done. Through expanding industry, Labour like other social democratic parties has sought to grow the economic cake so there will be more to go around. Instead it means accepting a flatter cake and focussing on redistribution issues. All European social democratic parties face this dilemma.