Manifesto week day 2: the Liberal Democrat’s 95-page offering, Change Britain’s Future, with the (now compulsory?) costings annex. The party is setting out to convince the electorate that they can offer better opposition and challenge to the next government.
As with my review of Labour’s manifesto yesterday, I dig into the policy detail to reveal five policy ideas that would definitely have legs and five that need more than a little fine-tuning.
But first, here is our overall perspective on the document from EEF’s CEO, Terry Scuoler.
“Business needs clarity and certainty about the future relationship with the EU and another referendum is surely unrealistic and would cause massive further uncertainty. However, it’s clear that in voting to leave the EU, there was no real discussion about how to go about it while protecting the nation’s economic interests. A so-called hard Brexit would be disastrous for business. Companies want a clear commitment to achieving a seamless trading relationship with our EU partners, with no tariffs and a straightforward and simple customs arrangement.
“The Liberal Democrats also rightly point to the importance of high-skilled migration and there are themes in the manifesto which would fit comfortably under the umbrella of an industrial strategy, from infrastructure commitments to supporting the Catapult programme.
“Right now, however, amidst all the electoral clutter business wants to see how the political parties are going to promote the investment, growth and jobs we badly need. This manifesto has a number of measures which would be negative for investment whilst adding yet more burdens to businesses, especially larger ones.”
Righting an unbalanced economy
The Lib Dems have the context for their economic strategy about right – imbalances, the advent of new technology and the need for some long-term thinking can’t be argued with. Their policy priorities kick-off with increasing infrastructure investment across the country (things we like #1). Their investment plans are pretty well aligned with where manufacturers would spend the next infrastructure dollar – roads and digital infrastructure, with the latter including a commitment to fibre to the premise as standard.
But we didn’t like it in yesterday’s manifesto offering and we still want to talk about it today – the Lib Dems also need to have a clear answer to the UK’s additional aviation capacity. We know their opposition to additional runways in the South East, but expanding regional airports is more about surface access than a substitute for a new Heathrow runway (things we need to talk about #1).
While investment priorities have been pinpointed in the context of fiscal prudence and with the development of a national fund which is squarely focused on a problem (Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank – things we like #2), the approach to creating a stable and predictable tax environment for businesses in something we’d need to talk about (#2). Chopping and changing business tax rates including a planned increase in corporation tax rates and little detail on a reform road map could add to the uncertainty for businesses in the next parliament.
Decisions made at the right level of government is something industry cares about. The Lib Dems approach to devolution needs some evolution (things we need to talk about #3). The Lib Dems would reduce the power of central government to interfere with local government. Manufacturers would dispute that local government should be left alone. All areas of England need to have some kind of Devolution Deal, but devolving to local authorities, when there are over 300 of them, simply won't be effective. Improved governance is needed in vast parts of England. Manufacturers think that local authority mergers would be a catalyst for improved local economies, central government has a role to play in making that happen.
CTRL+F Industrial Strategy
Hmm just the one find. Manufacturers and everyone else that responded to the last government’s consultation on industrial strategy would like to see buy in to the concept of industrial strategy from all the major parties (things we need to talk about #4).
But despite the lack of a strong focus on an industrial strategy framework, the manifesto does still contain quite a few policy components that would be consistent with one. There is positive intent around science and innovation (things we like #4), confirming existing commitments to science and stating a long-term aim to double innovation spending – though hopefully not too long-term. Similarly, more Catapult Centres is a positive ambition, but without funding commitments the detail is again missing on how the existing network will be maintained.
The important skills element of an industrial strategy is in the making too (things we like #5). In order to fix the skills gap in manufacturing it is vital that the next government focuses on education and skills in the early years. This is a focal part of the Lib Dems manifesto.
Better long term planning of initial teacher training places in shortage STEM subjects will help ensure the best teachers are teaching STEM subjects in state-funded schools. The commitment to encourage schools to work more closely with employers will also go some way to giving pupils an insight into what a career in manufacturing really entails which remains a long-standing challenge for manufacturing employers.
The manufacturing sector is the perfect example of how successful apprenticeships can add tremendous value to a business. However, encouraging women and those of BAME background remains a significant challenge for our industry.
Whilst a commitment to encourage greater diversity in apprenticeships in manufacturing and engineering is a positive step forward it is fundamental that any new apprenticeship advisory group does not duplicate efforts, involves industry and tackles the challenges that exist at the grass root level. Manufacturers will be sceptical however of further one-dimensional quantity based targets for apprenticeships (things we need to talk about #5).
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