Political history would suggest that Theresa May’s proposal for an Industrial Strategy belies her Conservatism. The phrase “Industrial Strategy” generally describes how a government will actively engage in the country’s industries and Tories generally do not espouse intervention in the private sector – apart from helping its share-owners get richer.
Labour itself, a more intervention-inclined party, has a mixed track-record in this. National priorities, of course, demanded that the WW2 government in which Labour played a very large part mandated how productive capacity was turned to the essentials of the war: food and arms, principally. Attlee’s government from 1945 then nationalised what it regarded as national priorities, of energy and transport, not merely to serve the nation’s needs better than self-serving private companies could or would; but also to introduce standards of workplace safety and workers’ rights, with considerable success.
However, attempts at selective intervention in the ‘70s by Tony Benn proved both disastrous and that politicians lack the expertise to pick “winners”. A cautionary tale, which may have put off subsequent leaders from emulation. Now, the Tory government looks to be trying a variation of this approach, by selecting sectors to foster with investment and other support. This presents Labour with a multitude of challenges: the need to respond; the need to do so in a way which is not just “we would do it a bit differently”; and the desirability of a 21st century socialist industrial strategy for the country.
It need not be seen as reactionary to look again at public or preferably social ownership. There is palpable public support for taking the railways and energy into publicly accountable management. There is, though, much not to like in the idea of selecting for support sectors merely on their growth potential as the Tories seem to have, not only because this choice may prove as unsuccessful as Tony Benn’s but because it is likely that shareholders, managers and workers in ignored sectors may be less than enchanted to be left out.
Then there is the issue of the nature of intervention and its objectives. History suggests that government financial initiatives have helped shareholders more than jobs or productivity. Hitherto, jobs have been a key objective. Today, functions, especially in manufacturing, may be more productively performed by machines or robots than even low-paid workers. This is hardly a social driver for strategy. So what is intervention for? There may be strategic sense as in 1945 in consideration of national needs beyond the mere profit growth of some companies which have little need of help. Food and energy security and concomitant reduction of imports, for example, in the post-Brexit period, may become of increasing importance again. Climate change suggests a strategic need for carbon-free energy technologies.
These or all sectors are surely best run by those who know their business, without interference from the ignorant. What could be of significant value to any or every sector include: innovation from scientific research, supported by a supply of STEM graduates; banking sympathetic to innovation; and [like the Tories – they can be right about something] infrastructure to facilitate logistics and high-speed secure data, nationwide. Facilitation is surely better than interference.
In other words, Labour should indeed have an Industrial Strategy, socialist in flavour, but differentiated from the government’s by better serving the whole nation’s interest and avoiding the problems of the past. The consultation’s focus on jobs, though laudable, may be less desirable and achievable than one on economic security. Labour may be better re-cast as the champion of the consumer than just of employment.