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Chuka Umunna's speech on Agenda 2030: Earning and growing our way to a higher standard of living

"We are strongest when we understand our mutual dependence: that business and society - we need each other. That we rise and fall together."

"Business and society - we need each other."
Chuka Umunna speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Speech to the EEF’s Annual Manufacturing Dinner

Thank you for that introduction, and thank you to the EEF for inviting me to speak to you tonight. It is an honour for me to be following such distinguished speakers from industry and politics you’ve heard from today.

I’d like to take this opportunity to put on record my particular thanks to Terry and his team – for the job they do for the EEF, championing your interests in Westminster and advancing the debate in the country.

The title of today’s conference is ‘Make it Britain’. Tonight – if you will allow me – I want to flip it around and ask a related, perhaps more fundamental question: how – in a fast changing world – can Britain make it?

Because the world is changing faster than we can comprehend. Over the last 12 months I have seen this with my own eyes, on trade visits to West Africa and China.

There are huge opportunities in a world where the global middle class is expected to treble to five billion people in the next two decades. But we currently export more to the Czech Republic – a country a tenth of the size and with less than a fifteenth of the population – than we do to fast growing Nigeria.

I mentioned China, and we like to think of ourselves as better innovators than the Chinese. But China is growing science spending by 36 per cent a year as it shifts from being an IP copier to an IP creator.

So for Britain this changing world holds out huge promise, as well as the risk. How can we realise the promise? How can we earn and grow our way to a higher standard of living for all? How can Britain make it?

Britain’s success depends on your success.

This is our national challenge. But it is a challenge I know we can meet. Look at our history. The character of our people. The companies in this room.

As I look around I just think of the amazing things I have seen in so many of your firms – world-class engineering and world-leading manufacturing.

British-based businesses creating good jobs, investing, innovating and exporting.

For Britain to succeed, we need you to succeed. And we need there to be more of you.

Indeed, manufacturing must have a much more central role in our national story. Strengthening our industrial base is vital because manufacturing plays a critical role in the R&D infrastructure of a modern economy; because it’s an anchor for so many high value jobs. And because, as you’ve discussed today, it can help re-shore jobs as well.

So Ed Miliband and I are clear: our job is to help you. And let no one doubt our resolve in doing so.

I say this not just to you – our manufacturers and engineers – but to firms in other leading sectors too – like the creative industries, the life sciences, business and professional services.

But if we are going to help you succeed, we need to see the world through your eyes. Your investment horizons stretch well into the next decade. Ours should too.

So today I want to talk about Labour’s long-term plan to earn and grow our way to a higher standard of living for all. Agenda 2030, based on a clear sense of direction.

We, the Labour Party, are clear about our goal: a high-productivity, high-skilled, innovation-led economy. A balanced, resilient economy succeeding in the world, creating good jobs and opportunities, offering people a ladder up and the chance to make the most of their potential.

That is our central mission, what we want to be known for, and what we want people to vote for above all else. It is the only way that we will tackle the cost-of-living crisis and make sure that future growth benefits all working people, and not just a few at the top.

Yes, it’s bold and ambitious but it’s the only way we can secure the future the British people deserve – a successful economy underpinning a strong society.

Now, there are those who will tell you – as the Chancellor did in Birmingham earlier this year, as Tea Party Republicans have argued in the States – that the central economic challenge facing the nation is not the size of our economy, but the size of our government.

Of course, nobody wants big government for the sake of it and the state must be affordable. We must bring the public finances back into balance following the huge costs of the global crash that irresponsible behaviour in the banking sector created.

That will involve tough decisions. If elected in 428 days, we will have to govern with less money. We know that. We will make cuts and Ed Balls has been explicit: there’ll be no extra borrowing to fund day to day expenditure in 2015/16.

And, because reducing the deficit and our debts is not an option but a necessity, we have pledged to balance the books, deliver a surplus on the current budget and get national debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament. No other opposition in modern times has made such a commitment this far out from a General Election.

Now, I know there are some who disagree with our opposition to the reduction in the top rate of tax. But is this really the time to be reducing the taxes of less than 1 per cent of earners when the public finances are so tight?

So rest assured. We understand the challenge in respect of the public finances. And we are up to it.

But reducing the deficit is neither the only economic challenge we face, nor – in the longer term – the most important. Permanent austerity is not what our economy needs in order to grow. To some it may be an ideological choice, but it is not an economic policy.

Because for all the progress made by the Labour Government and the stronger supply side conditions we achieved, the 2008/09 crash exposed long standing structural problems in our economy going back decades.

An economy unbalanced by sector and region. Short-termism in our corporate culture leading to low levels of business investment and low productivity. A dysfunctional finance system. A stubborn and increasing trade deficit. Above all, an economy failing to meet the material needs of too many families.

Growth has returned and it is welcome. It’s a credit to your hard work and that of your employees. It’s a credit to the investments you’ve made, the risks you’ve taken, the jobs you’ve created.

Despite that, after three wasted years, there is still much – much – more to do. Because we are not seeing the balanced and sustainable growth we were promised. Prices are still rising faster than wages. Meaning individuals are, on average, £1,600 a year worse off.

We are not seeing a recovery which benefits all working people and tackles the cost-of-living crisis. In fact, it looks a lot like the kind of growth we swore we would never return to.

So let’s be honest: business as usual is not good enough. If we’re going to set a foundation for future success, then we need to take a different approach.

So tonight I am going to set out the four pillars governing our Agenda for 2030.

Liberating the talents of all: an economy built from the middle out, not the top down

First, pillar one. Liberating the talents of all. We can’t hope to succeed as a nation if we are not giving everyone – in every part of Britain – the platform to succeed as individuals.

This goes to the heart of Labour’s approach to growing our economy. Not expecting wealth to trickle down from the top, but built on the contributions of all. Extending opportunity and removing barriers to success.

It’s why Labour is committed to fixing broken markets and intensifying competition, reducing barriers to market entry for new businesses, supporting entrepreneurship.

It’s why we will get more finance flowing to business again with a proper, independent British Investment Bank and a network of regional banks to support businesses that need growth capital.

It’s why we will improve support for small firms looking to export.

Today we've seen the BIS Select Committee raise real concerns about the impact of rising business rates on retailers. Under David Cameron, small firms have seen hikes in business rates of £1,500 on average, and many will see further rises next month.

But manufacturers are suffering too. As industry leaders have explained, the Government is doing nothing to address problems of high and rising business rates facing manufacturing businesses. The Government's business rates discount, announced with such a fanfare at the Autumn Statement, specifically excludes manufacturers.

Labour recognises the pressure that business rates are putting on businesses in all sectors. It is why we will cut and then freeze business rates, benefiting more than 1.5 million business premises.

And it’s why Labour stands for radical devolution of economic powers to our cities and regions. How does Germany succeed in growing its Mittelstand? Not by having decisions centralized in Berlin.

But, above all, it is why skills are my number one priority. I know it is yours too. Let’s be honest: for all the attempts at reform, our skills system remains dysfunctional.

For too long we have allowed our potential to be limited by a failure to develop the talents of all our people. Britain continues to have one of the highest incidences of low-paid, low-skilled work in the OECD.

That is unacceptable. There can be no future for Britain trying to compete without addressing the skills gap – competing on cost not quality, on low-wage strategies – in a self-defeating race to the bottom.

We must win a race to the top – supporting businesses like yours to create more jobs people can build a life on, and ensuring they have the skills to do them.

Here we all have an interest and we all have a responsibility. In this room are many of the best examples in Britain of firms who are providing world class training to the next generation of apprentices.

But - too many don’t. Two-thirds of large employers don’t feel it is their responsibility to train apprentices. And Government – itself a large employer – is failing to set the right example.

If we are to move forward as a nation this must change. It must become our defining purpose – a national mission.

Yesterday, my Shadow Cabinet colleague Tristram Hunt set out our plans to reform vocational education for 14s-19s. And in my blog for the EEF I explain in more detail how Labour will reform apprenticeships so that you – employers – will be in the driving seat. With control of the money, you will have responsibility for training the next generation.

And we need to think creatively. Catapult Centres were a brainchild of the last Labour Government, taken forward by this one. Just as they are at the cutting edge of technology, so we will support them to train a cohort of apprentices in the latest and best ideas too.

Solving tomorrow’s problems today

Which brings me to the second pillar: Innovating to secure our future.

It will be a priority for us to invest in our science base and develop our national innovation system, including building on the role of Catapults and the Technology Strategy Board.

Because winning the race to the top means developing solutions to tomorrow’s problems today.

Of course, before you can solve them, you must first acknowledge that the problems exist. Take climate change, perhaps the biggest long-term challenge facing us.

I’ve visited Siemens Energy Service Training Centre in Newcastle which provides 1000 jobs. It is part of Siemens’ commitment to combating climate change and developing the next generation low carbon sources of energy. It’s incredibly impressive, and there are many other examples of firms in this room with similar compelling stories to tell.

But you can’t credibly claim to be supporting innovative companies like Siemens help Britain become a global leader in the production of green technologies if half of your Cabinet and your party do not accept the basic science of climate change in the first place. You can’t claim to be pro-innovation if your party is against the science.

We understand the impact of rising energy costs on businesses, particularly in manufacturing. That’s why we will fix the broken energy market, freezing prices for 20 months while we do so. This would save the average small business £5,000.

It is why we will establish an Energy Security Board to secure our energy future. We know there are concerns about the carbon floor price, which Martin explained very clearly in his speech.

But ultimately, as Martin also said, the solution is for us to help you transition to a low carbon economy. As our automotive sector and others are discovering – this offers a huge opportunity to lead and build market share, if we get the support right.

Active government, investing for the long-term

Which brings me to the third pillar: active government and a long-term approach to growth. We need to work strategically with you and encourage longer-term decision making in government and industry.

This means rules of the game that reward a longer-term focus in the decisions you make. Here we are grateful to Sir George Cox who – with your fantastic support – produced his excellent report on how we address the problem of short-termism in our economy.

It means putting decisions on infrastructure on a consistent, long-term path. That is why we will implement Sir John Armitt’s recommendation of a National Infrastructure Commission.

And it means implementation of an ambitious industrial strategy to support the development of UK industry in targeted sectors to make the most of our competitive edge.

So I will be laying out our plans for the eleven existing sector strategies over the coming months, outlining the improvements we would make, and where we want to extend the approach.

Here, again, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to the EEF for the support you are giving to Mike Wright of Jaguar Land Rover for the review he is leading for us on how an active government can work with you to develop our manufacturing supply chains. If you are not already, I would encourage everyone here to engage with Mike’s important work.

One way we will deepen the sectoral approach is by smarter use of public procurement to back our target industries. I was pleased to see jobs secured in Derby with the Crossrail contract going to Bombardier. But the Government still denies ‘community benefit’ - the local impact on UK growth and jobs - can be a factor in procurement within EU rules.

On that, they are wrong. Under a Labour Government we will take account of ‘community benefit’ as other countries across the EU do when making procurement decisions.

An outward-looking, open approach to the world, not isolation

The fourth and final pillar: success in the world requires international engagement; an open, outward-looking approach to the world.

To make the most of our opportunities around the globe, we must remain open to the world and engaged, shaping the forces of change in partnership with other countries – in Europe and beyond.

You’ve already heard from someone who speaks a lot of sense on this: Ken Clarke. But the fact is most of his Conservative cabinet colleagues and his party – like UKIP – are intensely relaxed, even enthusiastic, about the prospect of our exit from the EU and choosing isolation instead.

That would be disastrous for Britain. You simply cannot claim to be pro-exports if you are anti-EU.

Shutting ourselves off poses a huge threat to our future prosperity. And not only within Europe – our nearest and biggest market – but across the world: standing shoulder to shoulder with our European partners gives us access to other markets we couldn’t get into, or not so quickly.

Leaving makes no sense at all. It is a choice driven by ideology, not a policy for investment and growth.

We should do as the EEF’s excellent report on Europe recommends: Stay in. Focus efforts on reform. Make the EU work better for growth.

That is why we have proposed the appointment of an EU Growth Commissioner:

  • To remove unnecessary barriers to enterprise. 
  • To bring greater coherence to European industrial policies. 
  • To grow production networks for small and medium sized companies in European supply chains.


Having spoken with our European partners, it is clear that others are keen on this idea.

So there you have it. To succeed as a nation, we need you to succeed. This requires more than a return to business as usual. It requires an economy retooled for a world of change. Agenda 2030 is our long-term plan.

It is ambitious. It makes demands of us all. But I believe together we can build a strong, sustainable economy: generating wealth, good jobs, shared prosperity.

Because I believe we are strongest when we understand our mutual dependence: that business and society - we need each other. That we rise and fall together.

And I know, looking out on you this evening, that if we pull together, with all our talent, all our ambition, and all our ingenuity our best days still lie ahead.

Thank you so much.