The Tories’ lack of manufacturing strategy has hit exports hard

We need reform if we are to compete in a globalised economy


The new blueprint for reversing Britain’s chronic trade deficit and kick-starting an energetic export drive has been welcomed by my union, Unite.

The Cole Commission on exports – an action plan from business, commissioned last year by Labour and chaired by AgustaWestland chairman Graham Cole, needs to be used to help rebalance the UK economy away from an over-reliance on the services sector and in favour of manufacturing.

There were worries in industry that the final report (following a hard hitting interim report) would be shelved following Labour’s General Election defeat.

However, given the coalition’s stop/start approach to manufacturing – Osborne’s ‘march of the makers’ was a failure- and an anticipated continuation of those policies by the Tory government, Cole’s report is relevant and timely.

The recent fall in exports has slowed the manufacturing sector’s recovery again, according to the latest survey of the sector by the CBI.

Unite gave evidence to the Cole Commission, whose report calls for cabinet-level political leadership to co-oordinate a strategy for exports, to rebalance the economy away from debt-fuelled consumer spending, the City and the service sector.

The Commission’s report is a chance for Lord Maude, the Tory minister of state for trade and investment, whose portfolio straddles both the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to rise to the challenges set out in the Cole report and start banging heads together.

While there has been some renaissance in UK manufacturing, led by the automotive and aerospace sectors, we still have a serious trade deficit in exporting manufactured goods.

The Cole report provides a stepping stone in constructing a strategy to rebalance the economy by boosting exports.

Unite is calling on ministers to focus on the report’s recommendations, such as a unified body embracing UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and UK Export Finance (UKEF).

The UK is trading in a fast moving, globalised world, and the current system in the UK is complex and fragmented. Other countries, such as Germany, are much better at pulling all the relevant bodies, including government, business and the unions, together for a vibrant export strategy.

Unite also supports the idea of specialist support for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in the supply chain to get into exporting goods through ‘one stop shops’.

We are calling for reforms to government bodies dealing with exports, with more focus on trade and investment in education.

But what we really need is for the government to commit to a well thought out and joined up manufacturing and industrial strategy, with exports at the centre.

We also need Labour to stand up to the Tories on this key economic policy, and argue for a rebalanced economy that will kickstart an energetic export drive.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite

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