Manufacturing can boom if we really want it to


This article was first published on the Independent on 20 July 2012. 

Sometimes this future blows my mind, like the microchips I saw being developed in Southampton which will help us to monitor our health in real time, or the electric vehicle Jaguar Land Rover is aiming to produce which, if charged using renewable energy sources, would emit less CO2 when driven than the food intake required to walk.

These are just two examples, but they reflect a broader picture. Since 1997, far from slipping back, productivity in UK manufacturing rose by 50 per cent. In high technology manufacturing we are now second only to the US among major economies. And although only 11 per cent of our GDP, manufacturing accounts for almost half of our exports.

So I am an optimist about our economic future and the role of manufacturing within it. But let us not be under any illusions. We have seen our currency depreciate sharply since the global financial crisis and we have not yet seen an export-led boom.

We must develop greater strength in depth, developing our manufacturing capacity by lengthening and strengthening supply chains. Our challenge is to make British excellence in manufacturing commonplace, boring even. This is not about quick fixes but about the long haul: consistent, determined steps forward, with active government working in step with industry.

In the short term, businesses are worrying about where demand will come from. Our economy has sunk back into recession, a recession made in Downing Street. The Conservative-led government has failed to show the leadership needed at home and abroad, and failed to take the action to guide our economy back to growth. As the Business Secretary reflected, this is a government that lacks any "compelling vision" about our national economic future. As a result, firms with cash are sitting on it, uncertain about the future and unwilling to invest. Those with good ideas can't borrow the investment capital they need. We need to restore confidence and get our economy moving.

In the longer term, there should be no lack of demand for world-beating firms with world-beating products. In the next two decades, there will be an explosion in demand as the global middle class triples in size to 5 billion people. That's a lot of demand we should be preparing our economy to meet. But to take full advantage of these opportunities, we must reform and reshape our economy.

We must reform it so firms have greater encouragement and support to focus on long-term value creation, not short-term profit extraction. The tax regime must encourage this, along with reporting requirements and government procurement. The financing options available to firms must support it, along with the skills base.

We must reshape our economy so that it is more resilient, more competitive and more inclusive: more resilient, with growth more broadly based across sectors and regions; more competitive, given shifts in the global economy and the pace of technological change; and more inclusive, with the benefits of future growth more widely shared.

This must be our national mission; building a successful economy that underpins the kind of cohesive, dynamic and inclusive society we want to see. This won't be achieved by an ideological Conservative-led government wedded to outdated orthodoxies: that the economy will fix itself; that the best government can do is to stand back; that markets never fail.

We need government willing to step up, not wanting to step back, to blame business and to cross its fingers. We need active government working hand in hand with productive business.

We must do this to give our firms the secure platform they need — access to the finance, the skills and the infrastructure to compete in fair markets. Strong competition in the marketplace must be complemented by greater opportunities for productive collaboration away from the market, to the benefit of all: collaboration that supports innovation, that develops manufacturing capacity by nurturing supply chains, that trains the workforce in the skills needed.

I have no doubt there can be a strong future for British manufacturing, but we have to really want it. We have plenty of examples of success to build on. But we can't rely on the heroic efforts of the few. We must make manufacturing success easier. This won't happen by chance. It will take consistent, deliberate action by government, working with industry for the long term. Only then can we fulfil the promise of manufacturing.