Vince Cable is right to support British business in procurement

Have Britain’s politicians finally realised that EU rules are not an impediment to an active industrial policy?

Today Vince Cable told the BBC that the British government must be more "strategic" in how it procures, so that "as much as possible goes to British businesses". Far from incurring the wrath of the European Union, the evidence suggests that this new course of action would see Britain finally joining the European club.

Since 2000 the European Commission has initiated only 10 infringement proceedings against the UK for procurement violations. In contrast it has initiated 63 against Germany, 52 against Italy, 31 against Spain, 20 against France and 12 against the Netherlands. Infringement proceedings are initiated when the Commission believes that a member state has broken the rules. Britain is an outlier when it comes to procurement; strategic support for domestic firms is the norm.

Not only is "strategic" procurement the norm but it does not necessarily result in a protectionist "race to the bottom". Despite Germany topping the infringement rankings, German firms are also the most successful in winning foreign procurement contracts in Europe. German firms captured 26 per cent of the market between 2007 and 2009, Dutch firms captured 10 per cent, Italian firms 7 per cent and French firms 5 per cent. British firms came in second with 17 per cent of the market.

As well as procurement, Vince Cable also talked about supporting strategic industries, such as aerospace, where the UK has a comparative advantage. Financial support for domestic firms or industries, like discriminatory procurement, is also supposedly banned by the EU. However, here again the evidence suggests that Britain’s approach is out of kilter with the rest of Europe.

According to the European Commission, in a typical year between 1992 and 2010 Britain spent only 0.45 per cent of its total public spending on the economy on manufacturing, including many of the sectors, such as life-sciences and aerospace, which the Business Secretary touted. In contrast, in a typical year over the same period France spent 7.67 per cent, Germany spent 13.29 per cent, Italy spent 8.66 per cent and Spain spent 16.36 per cent. In terms of total spending in support of their economies, Germany spent, in a typical year between 1992 and 2010, £16.64 billion more than the UK and France spent £9.17 billion more.

In supporting their manufacturing sectors many of these countries incurred the ire of the Commission. As of June 2010, the last data available, Spain had 15 cases of state aid that had been determined illegal by the European Commission and needed paying back, Italy had 14, Germany had 7 and France had 5. The UK had only 1 case of state aid declared illegal. Once again, Britain is an outlier.

It is ironic that the UK, a country regularly singled out for its ambivalence, even opposition, towards the European Union is often found to be one of the most committed adherents to EU rules. When Bombardier failed to win the Thameslink procurement contract last year, politicians of both parties blamed one another and the EU rules. Vince Cable’s pronouncement today hopefully indicates that British politicians are finally realising the folly of this. When it comes to conducting an active industrial policy, EU rules are no impediment, just ask Europe.

Stephen Clarke is a Research Fellow at Civitas

Vince Cable. Photograph: Getty Images

Selling Circuits Short: Improving the prospects of the British electronics industry by Stephen L. Clarke and Georgia Plank was released yesterday by Civitas. It is available on PDF and Amazon Kindle

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.