As shadow secretary of state for business I have had the opportunity to visit workplaces across the country with many of our fantastic parliamentary candidates, seeing first hand the better-paid, high-skilled secure jobs we need more of, and the dynamic, innovative businesses and sectors which create them. In the course of my ‘Future Jobs’ road trip around the country, our parliamentary candidates and I have used every opportunity to explain how Labour will back the creation of these jobs – because Britain succeeds when working people succeed.
We will have a huge task in 56 days if we are elected. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has in recent weeks shone a spotlight on how Britain’s low productivity is holding us back compared to our rivals and damaging living standards. We have also learned from the Office for National Statistics that the number of people whose main employment is on a zero-hours contract has jumped by almost 20 per cent in the last year. So Labour will reform the economy to ensure it works for everyone, helping people get on and meet their dreams and aspirations. We will do so by growing a high-value economy – winning a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.
To achieve this, we need more investment in technical and vocational skills, with more high-quality apprenticeship opportunities. That means success stories like WEC Group in Rossendale and Darwen which I visited with Will Straw in January. A leading engineering and metal fabrication firm, it has grown from just two members of staff to a business employing more than 400. Ten per cent of WEC’s workforce started there as an apprentice. Similarly, at Ford’s historic Dagenham plant, where Jon Cruddas and I saw how state-of-the-art British made machinery is transforming the assembly process for car engines.
So Labour will safeguard apprenticeship quality where it has been undermined by this government and guarantee an apprenticeship for every school leaver who gets the basic grades. This includes boosting apprenticeship numbers using the money the government already spends on procurement to create thousands of new apprenticeship opportunities, backing our key industries.
Successfully competing in a global marketplace means investment in research and development, and science and innovation to produce the goods and services the world wants and needs. In Portslade, Peter Kyle and I saw an extraordinary new material – D3O – developed by the firm of the same name. With a wide variety of commercial uses, including in safety helmets and sports equipment, it is soft and flexible but forms a rigid barrier when struck. Peter got the chance to demonstrate the material’s unique properties by using a hammer to hit my hand – happily, I can confirm that D3O works.
World-leading innovation was also on display at Johnson Matthey, a leading developer and manufacturer of sustainable fuel cells, which I visited in Swindon alongside Mark Dempsey and Anne Snelgrove. The company’s Swindon plant, built in 2002, was the first in the world of its kind and its catalysts have been used in Nasa missions.
To foster an environment where these kinds of firms flourish, we will set up a proper British Investment Bank to ensure firms get access to the finance they need. We will provide certainty with a long-term plan for science and innovation by backing the innovative Catapult Centres, which were set up by the last Labour government to develop new technologies and enable them to take on apprentices.
Time and time again, those we have met raised with us the importance of Britain’s continued EU membership and the risks to vital jobs and investment presented by David Cameron pushing us towards the European Union exit door. I launched ‘Labour’s Better Plan for the South-east’ with Victoria Groulef and Anneliese Dodds MEP in Reading at Microsoft’s UK HQ – for global companies like Microsoft, the UK’s place in Europe is crucial. The same is true for SMS Electronics in the east Midlands which manufactures electronic equipment for a wide variety of industry sectors – they told Catherine Atkinson and me how 60 per cent of their components end up in products sold overseas. In my own constituency RJB Stone, a retailer and wholesaler, exports a fifth of its items to EU markets. But under the Tories we have seen Britain’s influence abroad marginalised, so Labour will bat for business by engaging constructively and working alongside our European partners.
What is the point of all of this? To make sure everybody has a stake in the future and that our young people can access the opportunities presented by new technologies and new markets. There is no lack of ambition among the next generation. But to ensure their ambitions can be realised, we desperately need more firms, more jobs, and more opportunities for our young people like those I have seen on the road in recent weeks. Only Labour’s plan – with a proper industrial strategy at its heart – will deliver the environment in which they can flourish and in which we see the future jobs Britain wants and needs.
Chuka Umunna is shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills