One of the habits of spin merchants and PR teams is to come up with fine-sounding phrases which have an immediate appeal but don’t actually say very much. This was always central to New Labour, and given his background as a lobbyist, we should not be surprised if Owen Smith follows a similar pattern.
Even so, his call for a new industrial revolution was something of a classic. It sounds very dramatic, but what on earth does it actually mean? The Industrial Revolution was a transition from small-scale craft production methods to large scale manufacturing; it brought about huge changes in life style and conditions. Yet Smith’s new ‘revolution’ seems, when looked at in detail, to be about the government giving out a few subsidies to selected industries.
And that brings us to a second point - is it even within the power of politicians and governments to bring about significant change anyway? It wasn’t governments which brought about the first industrial revolution; indeed, it wasn’t planned or co-ordinated by anyone. Governments, unless they want to take control of the “commanding heights of the economy” as the Labour Party used to argue, can do little more than create the conditions under which others control and take advantage of events. But the consensus position of Labour and Tory alike has been for decades that globalisation is inevitable and we have to adapt to it. It is, of course, that very globalisation that they so love which has destroyed so much of the manufacturing industry in the UK.
Whilst I agree with Smith’s claim that previous governments (including the Blair and Brown governments of which this claim is an implicit criticism) have been too reliant on financial services and insecure, low-skilled and low-paid jobs, I’m not at all convinced that it is in the power of governments to rebalance the economy back to manufacturing. At least, I don’t see it as being possible without the government taking a much more interventionist role in the economy than is represented by throwing a few subsidies around. Perhaps I misjudge him; perhaps he really is planning to try and control the economy in the way the Labour Party used to believe was possible. Or then again, perhaps it really is no more than a sound-bite after all.