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Britain’s lack of industrial strategy has been laid bare for all to see

The PPE shortage scandal scratches the surface of our industrial decline, but unions can fix it, says GMB Scotland secretary GARY SMITH

COVID-19 has ruthlessly exposed the many deep and underlying problems in the British economy. 

From the exploitation of front-line workers to the impact of a decade of political austerity on the effectiveness of our public services; and from in-work poverty to the explosion of foodbanks, it has taken a global pandemic for many people to see things as they really are in modern Britain. 

At the point of crisis, the private sector, as expressed through the dominance of unregulated markets, and the service and finance sectors, was left wanting. 

The state had to step in and redeploy tax revenues in order to prevent a total economic collapse, while civil society was kept going largely through the efforts and skills of NHS, care and local authority key workers. 

All of a sudden, four decades of artifice and advertising melted away and we could see who did the real work in order to keep people safe and alive, the streets clean, the power on and the supermarkets stocked. 

The heroes of the pandemic were not the financiers, the media tycoons and the grey walls of consultancies: they were the ordinary, yet extraordinary, people whose work adds true value and dignity to our society. 

However, their lives and wellbeing were put on the line by perilously overstretched supply chains and the lack of proper PPE guidance, provision and equipment, all flowing directly from the absence of any industrial strategy for Britain. 

The modern state pays expensive consultants to produce endless guidelines, think pieces, and reports, covering almost every aspect of our lives. 

Yet it is curiously, even perversely, silent when it comes to things as fundamentally important as manufacturing goods, encouraging industry and planning for growth and development. 

This silence verged on the criminal once the pandemic had revealed the shifting sands of muddle, opportunism and greed upon which our economy is built. 

Despite all the political promises and the virtue signalling of the weekly applause, the government was demonstrably unprepared. And this cost lives.

It is shameful that the fifth-largest economy in the world was scrambling for the most basic protection in the fight against Covid-19. 

Even more so, and by the government’s own admission, when only 1 per cent of the UK’s PPE requirements was produced here. 

Let us consider the implications of this disgraceful failure for a moment: not only in lives lost but also in terms of missed manufacturing opportunities, the impact upon employment and the environmental damage inflicted by transporting products halfway across the world when they could be easily made at home. 

When over three million people are employed in our NHS and social care sector alone, it begs the obvious question: why did we not have our own manufacturing supply chains providing for these massive employers? 

Scratch the surface and you begin to understand why. The PPE scandal was a consequence of a much bigger industrial failure for a nation that once defined itself as “the workshop of the world.” 

The chronic decline of our manufacturing industries, the divestment and deliberate political neglect of these vital sectors and the shredding of our skills and jobs base has resulted in our dependency upon the rest of the world — and the rapidly developing economies in the east, in particular — for even the most basic goods and materials. 

That’s why we must seize this moment to refocus our attention upon industrial policy. 

There should be a clear realisation that we cannot “build back better” or “level-up” our forgotten communities if we persist in outsourcing jobs to the rest of the world. 

Our people can and want to do the work, providing in-work poverty is ended, tax loopholes are closed and adequate investment is planned for and provided. 

But recent talk of green industrial revolutions and capital investment programmes worth tens of billions of pounds to drive forward our recovery are nothing without a plan and purpose. 

We should know because we’ve also been here before over the last decade; years of failure littered by broken industrial promises, from Scotland becoming the “Saudi Arabia of renewables” to the “march of the makers” across Britain’s former industrial heartlands. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

We can fix this. We can have thriving shipbuilding communities, through the award of a contract for the Royal Navy solid fleet support vessels to a consortium of UK manufacturers. 

We can have world-class offshore wind manufacturing, if we legislate for guarantees of domestic content from our own renewables projects backed with the investment in our supply chains needed to deliver them. 

We can meet the skills and labour shortages if we plan, here and now, for the training of a new generation of workers equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead: not through the shoddy and cynical government apprenticeship schemes, but through world-class technical education that stresses dignity, insight and innovation. 

And we can have a viable and prosperous nationalised steel industry, creating and fashioning the raw materials vital to support this very practical and achievable manufacturing renaissance. We can grow and we can succeed.

As trade unionists we must ensure this vision is underpinned by the strength and influence of a fully focused labour movement. 

This means increasing our workplace and sectoral density and, vitally, the coverage of collective bargaining. 

This grassroots organisation should be the blueprint for the years to come. It is our industrial leverage — and political duty — to challenge the rising tide of deregulation, inequality and nationalism. 

In so doing, we can begin to turn that tide and reverse not only the national, but also our own decline.  

The challenges are massive, but the future of our movement and our national prosperity are one and the same. 

The legitimacy of a just transition to a low-carbon economy and the industrial transformation of the country depends on us. 

The defence of existing employment and betterment of terms and conditions, against the headwinds caused by the ending of furlough and future trade reform, depends on us. 

The proper value and resourcing of the NHS and vital public services that underpin our communities depend on us. 

The scars we carry as trade unionists, not just over the last year of this wretched pandemic, but over the last 40 years of industrial loss, should be all the motivation we need to ensure that, this time, we get it right and that we begin the journey together in order to make work better for millions and a country that is fit for all our children. 


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