The Lib Dems should be the party of manufacturing

An article by William Hobhouse on Liberal Democrat Voice, The Lib Dems should be the party of manufacturing, reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for ages. Because he’s right: we should

Hobhouse writes:

“Liberal Democrats are excellently placed as a party to champion the rebalancing of the British economy back towards manufacturing. Unlike the Conservatives, we are not tied to financial and Eurosceptic interests. We are a pragmatic party of business and wealth creation unlike Labour, and in the manufacturing heartlands our MPs already stand for jobs and renewed identity.”

Our biggest government department is Business, Innovation and Skills, with Vince Cable at the helm. In a recession, this should be the most important position in the Government for providing leadership to the country. As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, Vince has done some sterling stuff… but it has not been built into a narrative for the party.

And we have a grand narrative.

We are the industrial revolution. We are free trade. That was us: British Liberalism. Our ideological forebears created the modern world.

It is widely agreed (though not entirely fairly) that British manufacturing is in a century-long state of decline. Only Liberals have the ideological and intellectual basis, not to mention the glorious history of creating the first industrial empire, to wrench it from its torpor.

The Conservatives? They were practically made to support the landed aristocracy. It’s the same today, except the landed people they represent are those homeowners who don’t want their house prices affected by volume housebuilding, or their scenic views hurt by new industrial developments.

Labour? Their name being more or less vestigial, they now exist purely to create conditions of state dependency as a form of vote-purchasing. They put themselves in hock to big finance, and fostered unsustainable and unproductive economic booms, to get the cash to do it. In any case, they are an irrelevance: nobody believes that they could get this country making or doing.

Manufacturing and economic revitalisation should be our brand. It’s time to reclaim it. It’s what will resonate as a unifying theme through the rest of this Parliament and into the 2015 election.

Everything we already care about fits into this paradigm.

When we talk about the environment we can sound effete and metropolitan. We shouldn’t. It’s about making Britain energy-independent. Creating power. Launching off-shore wind from the docks in Hull and Middlesborough. Fighting nimbys (be they in commuter barn-conversions or on great estates) on behalf of literal electricity. Ringing the country with new power lines and mills that our industrial heroes wouldn’t have flinched at.

The High Speed Rail lines should be fought on the same basis. It’s a plan practically Victorian in its grandeur: our heritage. Someone needs to stand in St. Pancras chomping on a cigar like Isambard Kingdom Brunel to make that point, if that’s what it takes.

Free Movement

Labour have been trying to outdo the Tories with dogwhistle racism that should make all liberals gag with distaste.

Let’s not be shy about supporting the free movement of people. If people want to come here to work, we should welcome that unashamedly. Industry isn’t a zero-sum game. Immigration restrictions are already hurting some of our best universities, stifling our scientific advance.

By arguing for a renewed industrial identity, we have a solid ground from which to challenge Miliband and other conservatives on immigration.

Free Trade abroad

As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, this is where our long-standing internationalism comes into its own. Tory Eurosceptics dream of autarky. Labour talk up protectionism: British jobs for British people. Liberals want to work constructively with Europe and other markets to open them to British imports. Even international aid can be framed in this narrative: supporting investment abroad as something that’s good for our exporters.

Free Thinkers

We have put good education policies in place through the Coalition- the pupil premium, for example. But I’d bet it’ll come to naught electorally, because if Gove achieved nothing else with his O-level announcement, it was to reveal that the Liberal Democrats have no narrative when it comes to education, other than that we think it’s important.

The Tories can talk about turning the clock back to the 50s, with grammar schools and compulsory Latin – and it’s here that their appeal (?) lies. I suggest that we can weave our educational narrative around manufacturing by way of contradistinction.

We can talk about the Midlands Enlightenment and the Lunar Society – the intellectual movement that really made this country great. A deliberate focus upon practice, and the adaptation of science to useful ends. To put it in terms that Gove and Boris could understand, the Techne to their Episteme.

If the Tories want Latin and a Gradgrindish repetition of facts, we should talk about computer programming and applied sciences and equipping people to be enquiring and innovative in practical ways. Rigorous vocational training.

The Long Term

Because this isn’t just about taking leadership in the current recession, or surviving the 2015 General Election.

There is another industrial revolution about to hit, with new paradigms that will be as disruptive and transformative as the (our) last one.

Additive manufacturing, 3D printing, bio-scale assemblers and sequencers: distributed, on-shore, artisanal manufacturing. Physical and even biological things are going to become as replicatable as the internet has made intellectual property.

Cory Doctorow described Hollywood and the music industry as “the first belligerents in a century-long war”. The new industrial revolution is going to be opposed tooth and nail by “lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best day.” They are going to be using all their money and power to try and get the Government to stifle this innovation in manufacturing, to impose regulatory and criminal-legal blocks to this new industrial revolution.

We need a political movement that doesn’t bow and scrape to vested interests, that is willing to craft laws on patents, intellectual property, and copyrights that support innovation. If Britain is to get the start on the new industrial revolution that we had on the last one, vested interests will need to be fought, and old orders broken down.

What do you know – I think that’s a job for us again. Only us.

Sheffield

What fortune, then, that our current leader sits in Sheffield. The great cities of our industrial empire should be the backdrop to our cause. We have rugged stuff to do.

Published in: on June 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Up yours, Delors

I didn’t start this blog to gripe about Lib Dems doing dumb stuff, but those MEPs and Lords mouthing off to the media about Cameron’s Brussels veto are making our party look like naiive Euro-Federalists with no regard for our national interest. Oakeshott, Davies et al are running against the grain of public opinion and the press are seizing on this to damage the Lib Dems.

On the substantive issue, all the OMG about the veto is as much froth. This won’t change Britain’s relationship with the EU on a fundamental level: Europe needs Britain, Britain needs Europe. Most countries joined the EU for free trade and the common market, not French protectionism or German domination.

Whipping up a frenzy over the issue is purely domestic politics, on all sides: the British right wants to present this as a victory; Sarkozy has an election coming up, so has domestic reasons of his own for giving Cameron the cold shoulder and railing against the City of London. Diplomacy sometimes involve sticking to your negotiating positions. Compromise is not always possible. There wasn’t a politician around that negotiating table who didn’t understand that.

The British public are broadly Eurosceptic, and Cameron will have won himself a great deal of support. You only have to look at the popular press to see that. The media is also entirely hostile to the Liberal Democrats, so it’s no surprise that they are encouraging Europhile Lib Dems commit political automutliation on our behalf.

So we have extremist Europhiles Chris Davies MEP and Lord Oakeshott going on TV claiming to represent the Liberal Democrats. We have “senior Liberal Democrats” (although this could mean anything) briefing the press anonymously that this means that Clegg may not be able to control the party any more, there will be a Lib Dem revolt over this, and the UK government will fall. I believe that all they are doing is confirming public suspicions that the Lib Dems are not sound on Europe.

I don’t even vote Lib Dem in European elections, and I’m obviously not the only one: in the 2009 Euro elections the Lib Dems got 13% of the vote and came fourth. There are huge numbers of Lib Dem voters and members who still can’t stomach Chris Davies and our MEP contingent.

It’s always worth mentioning that Nick Clegg’s chapter in the Orange Book is about the EU, and remains one of the best statements of a liberal, British position on Europe that I have ever read. It starts from the position that the EU is broadly a good thing, but that it is an imperfect system and still in desperate need of reform.

British interests need fighting for, and it’s hard to see how any liberal could agree to a treaty that legislates against democratic, local budgeting decisions and enshrines in international law a strictly European People’s Party view of economic governance.

MPs like Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes are doing a good job of presenting a sensible liberal position on this, but their work is being undermined by noisy, unpopular Federalists.

Published in: on December 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm  Comments (2)  

Equity should be our guiding principle when it comes to foreign aid.

Liberal Vision’s Timothy Cox has called for the “Liberal Democrats to stand up and be counted on foreign aid”. He calls for the Lib Dems to “distance themselves from the aid ring-fence”, arguing, with good reason, that “government-to government aid has done very little to promote development over the last half century” and can “perpetuate long-term cycles of poverty in the developing world”. But there is one part of the Department for International Development that is successfully promoting sustainable development in poor countries while actually making money: the Commonwealth Development Corporation. If the Government does intend to increase the aid budget by £2 billion a year, then handing it to the CDC to invest in developing countries would be the best use of that money.

The Commonwealth Development Corporation functions as an equity investor in the developing world, recognising in its charter that economic growth and the success of native businesses is absolutely central to reducing poverty. It is a self-financing corporation, which Labour’s development Minister wee Dougie Alexander described well as a “self-perpetuating engine of development.”

The CDC invested £359 million during 2009, providing invaluable capital to businesses in the developing world during a difficult economic period, when commercial capital investment was shrinking. And it generated £162m of cash from this portfolio for future re-investment in developing countries.

The third world is crying out for investment, and can produce good returns on a commercial basis if investors are willing to take risks. The CDC has, among many other things, developed capital markets in countries with undeveloped private equity and invested in African banks, improved the management of Kenyan Orchards, established gold mines in Tanzania, invested in Indian Pharmeceuticals, and brought electricity to poor districts through the Globeleq energy company.

Private equity is generally not willing or able to work on the same risk basis as development finance institutions or specialist investment corporations like the CDC. But through its success, the CDC has demonstrated to other investors that it is possible to invest successfully in parts of the world that currently face a shortage of capital: last year it mobilised £742 million from third parties.

The Government has committed no new money to CDC since the mid-1990s, and the only additional money that it has invested are the returns on its portfolio – more than a hundred million pounds extra each year.

If we are to commit more money to development, maybe it’s time to make the CDC an even bigger arm of our development strategy, and give it a new injection of cash. This might even allow CDC investment funds to work with more marginal businesses and accept a greater level of risk on returns within the same overall commercial basis.

For years, people have eyed the CDC as a profitable sale by the Government, with Lord Ashcroft asking on 26 July this year whether consideration has been given to selling the Commonwealth Development Corporation in order to reduce the deficit. I’m glad that Baroness Verma replied for the Government that they do not have any plans to sell the CDC, which remains “an important instrument in the UK’s strategy to eliminate poverty through private sector development and growth.”

There is, however, an odd clause in the Coalition agreement: “We will keep aid untied from commercial interests, and will maintain DfID as an independent department focused on poverty reduction.” The CDC has proved over its sixty years that supporting commercial interests does reduce poverty – indeed, that no country in the world has been able to reduce poverty without economic growth. We can get good returns on our investments, while offering poor countries the only sustainable route out of poverty.

Published in: on August 8, 2010 at 11:14 pm  Comments (1)  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.