Change was very much the word of the day at this year’s Make UK (formerly EEF) National Manufacturing Conference as Britain’s manufacturers came together to discuss ‘preparing for Brexit and a changing world’.
‘Facing the Future Together’ was the theme of National Manufacturing Conference 2019, though what that future looks like is currently anyone’s guess.
“These are critical times for manufacturers, a time of great challenge but also great opportunity,” noted Make UK’s CEO, Stephen Phipson, in his welcoming address.
Industry is currently undergoing a rebrand, powered by the huge technological changes currently sweeping industry, both physical and digital. Against that backdrop, it seems fitting that EEF has itself undergone a rebrand to become ‘Make UK’.
The new name and associated imagery aim to better reflect the “extensive and dynamic nature” of modern manufacturing, as well as resonate more strongly with the next generation of makers.
Over the cliff edge for the sake of Tory party unity
With the conference taking place a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, it was unsurprising that Brexit was referenced in almost every conversation heard throughout the day.
Scorning the recent acts by senior politicians, Phipson noted that businesses are crying out for some “certainty and clarity” in order to drive investment, and that the current “pantomime” simply cannot continue.
With just weeks to go until the UK formally leaves the European Union, manufacturing businesses have never faced a more difficult and challenging political and economic landscape.
Citing the needs and demands of their member organisations, Make UK has six priorities regarding the UK’s negotiating position, number one of which is that a “catastrophic” No-Deal Brexit must be avoided at all costs.
An alarming 18% – less than one in five – manufacturers are prepared for a No-Deal scenario, according to Make UK; a figure which should serve as a wake-up call to government and underscores that such a scenario is simply not an option.
A new era of politics
Luckily, the chances of a No-Deal actually coming to fruition are less than 35%, according to veteran journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil.
None of the current options are more likely than that, he told delegates, predicting that some form of the Prime Minister’s deal would be the most likely outcome. If that were true, it could see an uplift to the UK economy, albeit only slight, he added.
Neil’s discussion offered a fascinating insight into political voting trends and the global trade landscape – both of which have seen significant disruption of late.
Your social economic background, he commented, used to be an accurate barometer for who you’d vote for – the middle class typically favoured the Conservatives, while the working classes largely aligned with Labour. Now, the “largely southern, metropolitan elite” are siding with Corbyn, and disenfranchised Northern communities are backing Theresa May.
We have entered a new era where politics has become more changeable, unpredictable and ultimately dangerous, Neil said. He reflected on what this meant for manufacturing; “The global environment in which your business operates is no longer as friendly as it once was. Both the far right and the far left are openly hostile to the environment your businesses have enjoyed and prospered in over the past 70 years.”
Describing May’s deal as “quite an achievement”, something “which gave up all the benefits of remaining with none of the advantages of leaving”, Neil noted that in the face of such uncertainty both at home and abroad, our focus had to be on “getting the fundamentals right.”
Investing in our future
Unquestionably, those fundamentals are: high quality infrastructure, a skilled workforce, and open and stable trading relationships – each of which have been held back by almost a decade of “unnecessary austerity”, according to Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.
This lost decade has caused “untold damage to our economy and strangled investment, leaving us with crumbling infrastructure, a productivity crisis and anaemic growth”, the opposition leader concluded.
The current government’s failure to invest has left us “poorly equipped to deal with the profound changes that are already upon us”, Corbyn declared. One area where the detrimental effect of Conservative policies is being acutely felt is education and training.
“There are organisations and companies doing good work, but as a country, we are moving in the wrong direction. University fees, the scrapping of grants and cuts to training have made education less accessible just when we need a highly skilled workforce more than ever.”
To combat the situation, the Labour leader announced a new ‘Commission on Lifelong Learning’ which aims to make the principle of lifelong learning a reality.
“It makes no sense for people to only be educated for the first quarter of their life and then work for the rest of their days with outdated or insufficient qualifications. It’s a waste of talent and a waste of potential.”
Bringing together 14 experts from across education, the Commission’s task is to create an inclusive system of adult education to be implemented by the next Labour government that will “make lifelong learning available to everyone, no matter their background, employment status or previous education”.
“The Commission will make detailed proposals on how to integrate qualifications, introduce a credits system to make qualifications transferable, and make it as easy as possible for people to pick up or pause their studies at times that work for them.”
Certainty in a time of great uncertainty
Business Secretary Greg Clark was forceful in his words, noting that he has always been quite clear that a situation in which manufacturers don’t have the certainty that they need regarding the terms under which over two-thirds of trade will be conducted in less than 40 days’ time is “unacceptable” and needs to be brought to a swift conclusion.
Echoing Make UK’s survey and their CEO’s words, Clark said that “leaving the EU without [a deal] would, in my view, be a disaster for the whole country.”
“The reality is that yesterday, the first freighter that will arrive after the 29 March 2019 set off from Felixstowe bound for Japan with no clarity on the terms under which its cargo will be admitted when it reaches its destination.
“That is, I know, unacceptable to you. And it’s unacceptable to me. For me, this shows how absolutely essential it is to conclude the arrangements with a deal in the weeks ahead. And not on the last minute on the 28 March, but as soon as possible.”
The deal that has been proposed is by no means perfect, Clark admitted, but he feels it meets the needs that manufacturers have vocally and persistently expressed. However, decisions like Honda’s announcement that morning to close its Swindon plant with a loss of 3,500 jobs demonstrate starkly how much is at stake should we get this wrong.