Commentary: Uphill task for Winterton

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The Independent Online
Let us at least begin on a charitable note by acknowledging that the Manufacturing and Construction Industries Alliance, launched yesterday by the Conservative MP Nicholas Winterton, has laudable goals.

But then, so have all the other manufacturing lobby groups that have sprung to life in the past 12 months in such numbers that they are in grave danger of becoming a cottage industry in themselves.

The reservation, as usual, is whether Mr Winterton's alliance will get anywhere in its aim of persuading decision makers to accept the importance of manufacturing in the formulation of public policy.

There are several objections to lobby groups of this nature. The most obvious one is that the more they proliferate, the more diffuse becomes the message. Do we really need yet another industrial alliance when the Confederation of British Industry is making a reasonable fist of putting industry's case?

There is also the Irish objection: it would be better not to start from here. In the alliance's promotional literature, it highlights the 2 million manufacturing jobs lost during the 1980s, the poor rise in manufacturing output compared with our competitors, and Britain's less-than-impressive record on capital expenditure when compared with rival nations such as Japan, Germany and France.

Sadly, the MP for Macclesfield has arrived after the horse has bolted. How much better it would have been for Mr Winterton and like-minded MPs to have begun their lobbying when it was not particularly fashionable to be seen as an advocate of manufacturing, much less industrial policy.

Manufacturing industry owes its parlous state in part at least to a political culture that predominated for most of the 1980s and that, if not actively hostile to manufacturing, decreed that our most important trading sector did not matter. As long as Britain's oil, financial and service sectors prospered, we could buy capital and consumer goods abroad. Never mind about R&D, or training, or management.

The alliance will make a start by lobbying within Parliament. This makes a change from the usual tactic of banging on Westminster's doors from without, and at least in Mr Winterton the alliance has a tenacious and independent-minded campaigner. But it will be an uphill task. As the alliance admits, only a handful of MPs have worked in industry.