Tim Page of the Trades Union Congress, in this short post summarising a recent TUC report, examines how a comprehensive industrial strategy led and coordinated by the state can help the regions of the UK successfully manage economic change. The report draws on case studies from Spain, Iceland and the Netherlands to illustrate how policies which bring together government, businesses, and unions can significantly improve outcomes in a changing economy.
A successful capitalist economy with growing output and productivity will generate a changing composition of that output and the associated employment over time, as new more productive industries expand and old less productive ones decline. This tends to create an uneven distribution of costs and benefits across the economy, so that in the absence of the right policies, particular regions can be left behind.
Emigration from declining regional economies to expanding ones tends to worsen outcomes in the former, as the more skilled and ambitious seek new opportunities. The declining region will lose their spending power, weakening local demand, as well as their potential skills. Those left behind are therefore likely to doubly suffer, as their local economy becomes locked into a spiral of decline, with reduced job opportunities and growing relative poverty.
While policy cannot totally prevent workers moving to find new work, it can encourage new industries to locate or emerge in declining areas with support for business, infrastructure and retraining, as well as reducing insecurity with a strong social safety net. In this way, regional and industrial policies which involve genuine social partnership can combine to increase new employment opportunities in poorer areas and prevent ever-widening regional inequality, which has proven to be a major problem for the UK in recent decades, compared with much of the rest of Northern Europe.
The state doing nothing, and leaving it all up to the individual, has failed the poorest regions of the UK. Similarly, the state doing everything, and replacing private employment with public sector employment, as happened under the last Labour administration, has proved all too vulnerable to a change of government. A more inclusive approach is now called for.