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Chuka Umunna's speech on "owning the future": full text

"The best government is a smart, effective government that plays its full part".

"The best government is a smart, effective government that plays its full part".
Chuka Umunna speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Speech at Food and Drinks Federation Annual Dinner

 

Thank you to Richard, Melanie and the FDF for inviting me, it’s an honour to speak to you and to celebrate the success of this sector tonight. 

 

Tonight is a celebration of what you do in this fantastic Food and Drink sector - and quite rightly so.

 

The work of the FDF and companies in the sector

 

So many of you - including the FDF itself - are setting an example that should be an inspiration for others - not only in other industries, but in government too.

 

Because you are following a long-term strategy to ensure the continued health of the sector. Think of the Food and Drink Federation’s 2020 Vision for 20% growth. You’re already up there as one of the UK’s most important sectors and British food and drink companies lead the world.

 

You could rest on your laurels. But you’re not happy doing that. You recognise the challenges and opportunities that come with the ever-changing nature of the globalised modern world - and the modern consumer.

 

You’ve committed to deliver more world-class innovation. You’ve committed to support more of the 96% of small businesses that are the backbone of the sector, so that we have more homegrown success stories like Innocent Drinks.  Like Ella’s Kitchen – founded by Ella’s dad, Paul Lindley, whose fantastic story I heard when he spoke at Labour’s entrepreneurs network, NG: Next Generation.

 

On top of that - you’re also focusing on how we can build on the strength of this sector and take our expertise around the world.

 

And that’s just the FDF - I know lots of individual companies are also committing to long-term strategic thinking - in the knowledge that you have the power - and responsibility - to shape your future.

 

The role of government

 

And that must be the inspiration for Government - to assess the context of challenges and opportunities presented by the changing world we live in. And then a long-term strategic plan to build a sustainable economy and strong society  underpinned by the talents and skills of all our people.

 

But right now that’s not what we’ve got. Yes - growth has returned after three years of a flatlining economy. It’s welcome. It’s a credit to your hard work and that of your employees. Your investments and long-term plans.

 

But growth is not yet built on sustainable foundations. In fact, you know, it looks a lot like the sort of growth we promised never to go back to: unbalanced by sector and region. Short-termism endemic in government and business. A dysfunctional finance system. A stubborn and increasing trade deficit - which has widened by £36bn over this parliament.

 

Above all - it’s an economy that doesn’t meet the material needs of many people - too many families - struggling with the cost of living.

 

There are some that will tell you, now that growth has returned it doesn’t matter if we go back to business as usual. Recession has receded so it’s time for government to step back. 

 

That is an ideological approach – as George Osborne made clear when he said government needs to be permanently smaller. That our key economic challenge is not the size or nature of our economy but the size of our government. That the best government is the government that does the least. 

I fundamentally disagree with that - because I think growing our economy is a collective endeavour.  We, as a society, collectively have to empower individuals to prosper.

 

And let me be clear: I’m not arguing for big government the state must be affordable and we have pledged to get the public finances back into balance. But what I am arguing is that the best government is a smart, effective government that plays its full part supporting you in building the type of economy we need. Not just in the Business Department, but in every Department: enterprising government working in a joined up fashion with you.

 

So the return of growth is not an excuse to step back. Far from it.  It is the time to step up, to intensify the pace of reform to build a better balanced, sustainable economy.

 

Government actively shaping an economy: 

- that generates shared prosperity, with more middle-income jobs.

- that gives everyone in all parts of the country a ladder up to achieve their aspirations and dreams.

 

Agenda 2030: owning the future

 

Because as a country, we have to think relentlessly about the future, to shape the future, to own the future. If we don’t own the future, we don’t control our destiny.

 

That’s why last month I launched Agenda 2030 – Labour’s long-term strategy to earn and grow our way to a higher standard of living, to sustainable success in an economy that works for all. 

 

It goes without saying that food and drink - with almost £80bn turnover - is fundamental to the UK’s economy and that future. Our largest manufacturing sector, generating 400,000 jobs and supporting more than 3 million others in retail, catering and other industries; buying two-thirds of what UK farmers produce; you export more than £19bn a year in food and drinks. 

 

You are also incredibly dynamic - continuing to grow during the recession and bucking the trend - actually increasing the productivity of your labour force by 12% over the last 10 years.

 

So, if we’re elected, I want to continue to work with you to support your aims towards your 2020 Vision and beyond.  We won’t let you fall between a Defra Department that struggles to understand advanced manufacturing and a Business Department that does not see you as core to their business. We will work with you through Agenda 2030, built on four pillars.  

 

First, to succeed in creating broad-based, sustainable growth we must make the most of all our people.  We must liberate the talents of all. 

 

At a national level, too often the discussion is around statistics and growth figures. But that undervalues the importance of people in our economy. 

 

You know their importance. Because by 2017 your industry will need 137,000 new recruits. The FDF have already started work on bringing through people with more training - and I congratulate you on creating the first degree-level qualification in food.

 

But Britain has one of the highest incidents of low-paid and low-skilled work in the OECD. Some will say this doesn’t matter as long as the wealth of the highest earners trickles down. If you go to any food bank in my constituency my constituents will tell you that that wealth hasn’t trickled down to them - I don’t think that’s ever happened.

 

So what we need to do is to boost the creation of more high-skilled - and better paid - jobs. That is how we build a better Britain.  And there are plenty of those jobs in your sector.

 

So we want to work with you to reproduce your success in other sectors.  To help you, we will ensure that young people study maths and English up to the age of 18. We will invest in the quantity and quality of apprenticeships, helping to prepare our young people more completely for the job market of now - and of the future. 

 

You know, I represent people who would never dream of coming to an event like this. Or even think it’s possible to do what some of us have the privilege of doing in our careers. Lots of us here have had the good fortune of opportunity. We’ve worked hard for it, but we’ve had the opportunity. We want to make sure more people have the opportunity that we in this room have had.

 

Second, part of the reason I’m a progressive politician is because in a world of change, you have to embrace change.  You have to work to stay ahead of the game by solving tomorrow’s problems today. It’s no use harking back to the Britain of the 1950s as some in British politics do. We must look to the future.  And, as it is in your industry, it is the communities and countries that innovate best that will have the most vibrant and wealth-creating economies. That’s why our second pillar is innovating to secure our future.

 

You set an example for others in this.  You invest more than £1billion in innovation. You bring 8,500 new products to market every year - like Lizi’s Granola on the Go which I read about, to be launched next month.

 

That’s why we want to support more opportunities for collaborative investments, like the Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering at Sheffield Hallam.  It is why we are prioritising investment in science to develop a national innovation system, including building on the Catapult Centres and the Technology Strategy Board that we set up in government. And we hear you when you say that the TSB needs to be more sensitive to innovations in food manufacturing, not just agriculture. 

 

Our third pillar is to have an active government that supports your success and encourages long-term investment. We will set the framework so that the rules of the game encourage and support long-term decision-making. For every example of long-term strategic planning, we sadly also have one of short-sighted, short-term thinking amongst investors - good for the quick buck, but bad for us. This needs to change. And we will reform Government so that long-term strategy sits at the heart of what we do.

 

I’ve heard complaints from some in your industry that the Government’s strategy is to narrowly focused on agri-tech, not encompassing the whole of the agri-food supply chain as it needs to.  And while we will challenge you to achieve excellence, we will listen to you about how we can work together to deliver more quickly the support you need to thrive – to innovate, to export and to get access to the finance you need. 

 

Having the government play an active role is vital, because as we look across the world, we actually have a lot of opportunity open to us.

Which is why the fourth pillar is to have an outward-looking, open approach to the world.

 

Much of your exports are focused on Europe.  You perhaps therefore understand more than most that shutting ourselves off from the EU, our nearest and biggest market, would pose a huge threat to our future prosperity.  I think it would be disastrous to do so but I have a small favour to ask – please free your managers to make this point to your employees.  It is the ultimate antidote to the visits your staff receive from UKIP canvassers on their doorstep - telling them we should get out.

 

Yet, beyond Europe, the growth of the middle class and their disposable income across the world is the opportunity of the future. Last year, on a trade mission in China, I met some of your members who are exporting and growing in that rapidly expanding market. But it isn’t just China that we must be looking to. By 2020, 128 million African households will have discretionary income - and African consumers will spend more than $1.4 trillion. We must be part of that, too.

 

Conclusion

 

So, to conclude: for us to succeed as a country, we need you to succeed as businesses, as an industry.  Together we can build a sustainable economy, succeeding in the world and creating the jobs that give people a platform to live fulfilling lives.

 

That’s our mission - and Agenda 2030 is our strategy - and I am confident that in you, we find not only a strong foundation from which to work, inspiration for how to go about it, but also partners in making it happen.

 

Thank you for the work you do, congratulations on another successful year, much success for the one ahead.