The industrial strategy still matters – it shouldn’t be dismissed so easily

When I was invited to sit on the Industrial Strategy Council (ISC) as the only trade union representative in 2019, I was encouraged to be part of a body set up to provide independent oversight and evaluation of the government’s progress in delivering the aims of its Industrial Strategy.

The work of the Council, with the support of an outstanding secretariat team at BEIS, produced insightful and powerful research for Government and stakeholders. This included important contributions on the impact of the changing nature of work on our skills mismatch in the UK, and solutions to skills challenges, regional productivity differences, and levelling up.

Over time, I saw potential for the Council to expand its remit and take on greater responsibilities, transforming gradually into a true social partnership institution, and setting the direction and strategy for the nation’s businesses and workers. The ISC had a real opportunity to bring together businesses, workers and their trade union representatives, academics, and government, to build a serious plan for this country.

Instead, and with regret, we have instead seen the government scrap its Industrial Strategy Council, and the scrutiny and accountability that came with it, as well as its entire Industrial Strategy framework.

Since then Prime Minister Theresa May promised a ‘proper industrial strategy’, big changes have transformed the UK policy environment, including the impacts of Brexit, and the COVID-19 crisis. A planned refresh of the strategy could have been an opportunity to take in to account these major structural changes and create a revitalised long-term vision for Britain.

The government has set out ambitious goals: levelling up, net zero by 2050, and delivering on the opportunities of Brexit. But none of these admirable goals can be achieved without a long term, coherent industrial plan.

Instead of an industrial strategy refresh, however, we are getting a Treasury led growth programme focussing on post-pandemic. It’s understandable that the government’s current focus is recovering from the pandemic, but deep inequalities and failures exposed by the pandemic require   a longer-term plan, and longer-term thinking for our whole economy.

The Treasury’s Plan for Growth does not meet the scale of the challenge. Instead, it presents a piecemeal patchwork of short- and medium-term proposals. Ultimately, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister’s rhetoric isn’t matched by the meagre funding announced.

The ISC’s final annual report, published today, emphasises that the key ingredients for a successful industrial strategy are scale, longevity and policy co-ordination.  Industrial policies don’t lead to change overnight and require concentrated effort- so the strategy needs to remain constant and survive changes of administration.  It also reiterates that scale is necessary to drive change in the macro-economy, and a co-ordinated effort is required between the public and private sectors.

In other words, we need more industrial strategy, not less.

An Industrial Strategy is key to achieving just transition. As we strive to meet our net zero targets, change will affect every workplace and every town. We will see new green technologies come in, and existing industries will need to change their technologies and upskill their workforces.  The people most affected must get a fair share of the increases to productivity that this creates.

Unfortunately, the Treasury’s plan doesn’t include a vision for our incumbent industries, like steel. The topic receives scant attention, a simple note that: “high carbon sectors will have to adapt”. The message sent to the UK’s critical manufacturing sector is that the government does not care about supporting the industry as it faces these enormous challenges.

Workers in these sectors have been massively let down by this lack of vision. They need to know that there will be jobs in their industries for them as the sectors adapt to new low-carbon technologies. They need to know there will be good new jobs in their towns for their children and grandchildren.

In cases from coalmines to steelworks, we’ve seen the massive and generational damage that is done to places when industrial change happens to them, instead of with them. Earnings remain depressed for years and workers’ self-respect is undermined. The surrounding economy is hit and doesn’t recover. Communities are scarred.

The government must play its part in supporting workers in incumbent industries, supporting those who need to change jobs or upskill in response to the unprecedented pace of change.

Businesses too are crying out for leadership from the government to help them understand where to invest, what the nation’s priorities will be and how they can play their part in protecting our people and planet.

It was an honour and a privilege to serve on the Industrial Strategy Council and I am bitterly disappointed that this government has seemingly abandoned industrial strategy at a time when it has never been more necessary.

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