There is an alternative: governments can do what markets cannot

To succeed in age of globalisation, British manufacturers need a government that rejects laissez faire Thatcherism.

In the wake of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral last week, there has been much revisiting of the 1980s and her legacy. Though there are disagreements as to the benefits of her approach, there is one thing on which we can all agree: for better or worse, she did change Britain.

One impact of the revolution her policies unleashed was that too much of our manufacturing base was undermined. Nevertheless, Britain remains the ninth largest manufacturer in the world today, and a global leader in many areas of advanced manufacturing. The best of British manufacturers have shown they can meet the challenge of global competition.

For example, since Labour’s establishment of the Automotive Council – and the continued backing of it by this government – Britain has confirmed itself as a great place to make cars. The sector has attracted investment on an unprecedented scale and is on track to break the record for car production set in 1972.

What it means to be a leading manufacturer is changing as well, as the divide between the service and manufacturing sectors has become blurred. Last week I visited Rolls Royce, a global leader in aerospace. The majority of Rolls Royce’s revenues are generated not from manufacturing but from after sales service contracts. This shows how the benefits of a strong manufacturing base can spill over into other sectors, generating more of those well paying and satisfying jobs that our economy needs.

So the potential is there to grow our manufacturing base further. But British manufacturers need a government that backs their ambition. They need a proper, modern industrial strategy – demanding in its ambition and effective in its execution. This is not something which sits comfortably with laissez faire Thatcherism.

George Osborne – a disciple of the laissez faire approach - promised a "march of the makers". But overall, and despite a significant fall in the value of the pound, the reality simply has not matched his rhetoric. The latest trade figures were terrible, with the recent fall in exports reflecting a downward pattern that started in October 2011 according to the ONS. Companies with cash lack the confidence to invest. Firms needing finance to expand can’t get it.

One of the maxims of the neoliberal economic revolution Thatcherism unleashed was that governments must be subservient to markets. There was, Mrs Thatcher said, "no alternative". Recent history warns of the limits of this approach. It is also becoming abundantly clear that globalisation, far from limiting the space for governments to act, is making such action more important. It is not surprising that northern European economies which have pursued industrial strategies and applied a different model to Thatcherism have largely maintained their shares of expanding global trade through policies that work together to reinforce areas of national strength. 

Governments can do what markets cannot: they can help firms work together to address shared problems over skills or R&D, even as these businesses compete fiercely for custom. Governments can give direction and support to the animal spirits that drive investment and innovation. Through strategic use of procurement powers, governments can provide clear market signals, allowing British-based firms like Bombardier, whose plant in Derby I have also recently visited, to develop the capabilities needed to win public contracts. Public contracts can be used, after all, to advance public goals: to train apprenticeships, to encourage innovation, and to boost local employment.

Baroness Thatcher’s passing has revived strong memories of a bygone era. Yes, she changed Britain, but changed circumstances mean our country’s economy now needs something different too - there is an alternative and we must grasp it. 

 

A Vauxhall employee works on a vehicle on the production line at the Vauxhall car factory in Ellesmere Port, north-west England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.