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How the government's industrial strategy could steal your job

The industrial strategy aims to boost productivity and spread growth. But this is not the same as a well-paid job.  

Not long ago, a musician friend of mine told me about a lucrative gig. Instrumentalists were being paid to come to a recording studio, and simply play every note of a scale. The pay was good. There was only one thing that made my friend uneasy – once the project was done, the man behind it would have a recording of every orchestral instrument playing every note. And thanks to the wonders of digital technology, he’d never need to hire a live musician again. 

The government’s industrial strategy is one of the great hopes of Brexit. Pumping money into infrastructure, research, and business support has stoked dreams of reindustrialisation. The Labour donor and industrialist John Mills, who has long investigated the decline in British manufacturing, is calling for further action. He believes a further devaluation in the pound, to around $1.05, could tip the balance in favour of the home grown makers. 

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has made it clear that the government will prioritise controls over immigration in the Brexit negotiations. Those who believe that unskilled immigrants have pushed down wages (the evidence is mixed) can expect any new jobs created to go to British workers.

But here is the question that still needs answered. What is the definition of industrial strategy success?

According to the government’s green paper, it is launching the strategy in order to enable “stronger productivity and more balanced growth”. These are laudable aims. Put simply, productivity is the ratio of what you get out compared to what you put in, and Britain isn’t good at it. But I am yet to come across an example of a struggling, northern, small-town Labour voter who said they voted Leave because of "the value added per employee". The Brexit post-mortem has revealed deep fears about employment security, the quality of jobs and the way culture and industry overlap. Productivity is not the same thing. 

Britain’s manufacturing heritage is told through faded photos of workers on assembly lines, or operating basic tools. But that was the 1970s, and in the 21st century, a factory has a lot more robots. Using robots raises productivity by 0.37 per cent, according to a recent LSE/Uppsala study, and we are still in the early stages of development. Surely any 21st century, productive, British entrepreneur worth his or her salt would embrace automation?

Whether or not robots and other automated processes steal jobs is up for debate – just as immigration is. The Bank of England’s chief economist believes robots will replace nearly half of all British workers in the next two decades. (Mills, for his part, argues that robots can never replace humans in certain sectors, like caring). What we do know, is that Foxconn, which makes Apple and Samsung components in China, replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots in 2016.

Conversely, one of the explanations for Britain’s “productivity puzzle” is that since the recession, firms have tried to avoid making good employees redundant. In other words, they have chosen humans over machines. “Firms have had incentives to substitute cheaper workers for more expensive machinery and buildings,” is how the Royal Economic Society put it in 2014. Silicon Roundabout’s “disrupters” may wince at such disregard for progress. But since unemployment leads to the erosion of skills, reliance on public services and the disintegration of the community, it’s worth putting productivity in context. 

The industrial strategy may well stimulate local economies, inspire entrepreneurs in forgotten small towns and provide some backbone in the uncertain Brexit negotiations ahead. But it will not be a return to the past. And with freedom of movement scrapped, if the workers of post-industrial Britain find they are still lacking quality manufacturing jobs, they won’t have immigrants to blame. 

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

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.