The government’s new industrial strategy needs to create a cultural transformation, as much as an economic one

Regional cabinets probably aren't going to fix this mess. Image: Getty.

It’s a chilly January day, and the government has just broken with its previous laissez-faire approach and announced a bold, interventionist plan to boost the UK’s economy at a time of great uncertainty.

But instead of it being Theresa May and Greg Clarke doing the speeches and media interviews, it was Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. The year was 2010 – a time beyond the reach of human memory in today’s Twitter-driven politics. But look at the ideas and aims of the Labour government’s Going for Growth paper and they could well have been lifted straight out of a dusty filing cabinet by the wonk charged with writing May’s “new” strategy.

The truth is that numerous governments of every party colour have announced interventionist strategies of remarkable similarity for decades: big investment for infrastructure, funding for university research, support focused on the “sectors of the future” and teaching of the skills required by disruptive technologies. Harold Wilson made such an approach the very heart of his 1963 election campaign with the slogan the “white heat of technology”. Even the supposedly staunchly laissez-faire Margaret Thatcher did a heck of a lot of intervention.

Which raises a rather challenging question for this government. These sorts of policies have been tried so often in the past, yet have failed to address the UK’s very long-term problems of low productivity and regional economic imbalances. So why have they not worked before? And how can they be made to work this time?

There are two answers, I think.

The need for cross-party support

Firstly, there is the fact that these policies are often not followed through. We only need to look at very recent history with Brown and Mandelson’s industrial activism being seriously watered down by George Osborne as part of his austerity drive. Too often growth strategy is the victim of changes of government, minister or priorities.

The truth is that deep-set, long-term problems like productivity and economic imbalance can only be resolved with the application of consistent policies over decades not years. Germany’s much vaunted success in this area is not down to the originality of its policies, but the fact they have been applied consistently by a series of governments ever since 1945. One of the most successful sectors in the UK, our pharmaceuticals industry, has flourished because it has in effect been in receipt of activist support in the form of NHS contracts since the 1940s.

This is why if May is really serious about her goals she should spend as much time building a genuine consensus and commitment across the whole of the party spectrum as will be spent on implementing the policy itself. Of course that means opposition parties playing ball – and the Conservatives being willing to lose whatever electoral advantage they think they can achieve by making this new strategy a Tory idea. I fear we will have to live more in hope than expectation on those.

The creativity of people and communities

But what ultimately drives the innovation and competitiveness of a nation over the long-term is the same thing that drives the innovation and competitiveness of the best companies: the mind-set of its people. There needs to be a deep creativity, openness to change and powerful sense of self-determination embedded in communities across the UK. Big investment and infrastructure plans will only go so far if the country – or, more importantly, certain areas of the country – don't have the requisite restless entrepreneurial spirit.

This is where local government could play its most important role. Councils are far better placed than Whitehall mandarins to create a sense of transformational mission in a place and its people by working collaboratively with schools, colleges, local business, civil society organisations and cultural bodies. Councils have the knowledge and connections to nuance and promote such a message in a local context in a way Westminster never could.

This all sounds horribly fuzzy compared to ploughing billions into some new rail track. But as the increasingly influential economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey has spent a career pointing out, the last two and half centuries of remarkable innovation and growth were launched not by big plans from above, but by a cultural shift from below that made the entrepreneurial lifestyle and mind-set respectable and aspirational.

As McCloskey says, this was a shift that began in Britain – ironically, in the very same parts of the country that now struggle to break out of cycles of low productivity and growth. We must recapture that spirit across the whole of the country if this industrial strategy is not to go the way of previous industrial strategies.

Adam Lent is director of the New Local Government Network think tank.

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These maps of petition signatories show which bits of the country are most enthusiastic about scrapping Brexit

The Scottish bit. Image: UK Parliament.

As anyone in the UK who has been near an internet connection today will no doubt know, there’s a petition on Parliament’s website doing the rounds. It rejects Theresa May’s claim – inevitably, and tediously, repeated again last night – that Brexit is the will of the people, and calls on the government to end the current crisis by revoking Article 50. At time of writing it’s had 1,068,554 signatures, but by the time you read this it will definitely have had quite a lot more.

It is depressingly unlikely to do what it sets out to do, of course: the Prime Minister is not in listening mode, and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has already been seen snarking that as soon as it gets 17.4m votes, the same number that voted Leave in 2016, the government will be sure to give it due care and attention.

So let’s not worry about whether or not the petition will be successful and instead look at some maps.

This one shows the proportion of voters in each constituency who have so far signed the petition: darker colours means higher percentages. The darkest constituencies tend to be smaller, because they’re urban areas with a higher population density. (As with all the maps in this piece, they come via Unboxed, who work with the Parliament petitions team.)

And it’s clear the petition is most popular in, well, exactly the sort of constituencies that voted for Remain three years ago: Cambridge (5.1 per cent), Bristol West (5.6 per cent), Brighton Pavilion (5.7 per cent) and so on. Hilariously, Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North is also at 5.1 per cent, the highest in London, despite its MP clearly having remarkably little interest in revoking article 50.

By the same token, the sort of constituencies that aren’t signing this thing are – sit down, this may come as a shock – the sort of places that tended to vote Leave in 2016. Staying with the London area, the constituencies of the Essex fringe (Ilford South, Hornchurch & Upminster, Romford) are struggling to break 1 per cent, and some (Dagenham & Rainham) have yet to manage half that. You can see similar figures out west by Heathrow.

And you can see the same pattern in the rest of the country too: urban and university constituencies signing in droves, suburban and town ones not bothering. The only surprise here is that rural ones generally seem to be somewhere in between.

The blue bit means my mouse was hovering over that constituency when I did the screenshot, but I can’t be arsed to redo.

One odd exception to this pattern is the West Midlands, where even in the urban core nobody seems that bothered. No idea, frankly, but interesting, in its way:

Late last year another Brexit-based petition took off, this one in favour of No Deal. It’s still going, at time of writing, albeit only a third the size of the Revoke Article 50 one and growing much more slowly.

So how does that look on the map? Like this:

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of an inversion of the new one: No Deal is most popular in suburban and rural constituencies, while urban and university seats don’t much fancy it. You can see that most clearly by zooming in on London again:

Those outer east London constituencies in which people don’t want to revoke Article 50? They are, comparatively speaking, mad for No Deal Brexit.

The word “comparatively” is important here: far fewer people have signed the No Deal one, so even in those Brexit-y Essex fringe constituencies, the actual number of people signing it is pretty similar the number saying Revoke. But nonetheless, what these two maps suggest to me is that the new political geography revealed by the referendum is still largely with us.

In the 20 minutes it’s taken me to write this, the number of signatures on the Revoke Article 50 has risen to 1,088,822, by the way. Will of the people my arse.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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