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Insecure UK defence work

It is the government’s job to keep people in work, by encouraging the growth of new industries amid rapid technological change, preserving high skilled jobs through manufacturing diversification.

lead Royal Navy submarine HMS Victorious departs HMNB Clyde, 2013. Wikicommons/LA(Phot) Will Haigh/MOD. Some rights reserved.

The past four decades have seen the UK manufacturing sector dramatically reduced and restructured. The Conservative government of the 1980s ended the state protection of manufacturing and scattered it to the winds of international markets.

For strategic reasons, the government preserved a military manufacturing base, sustained by Ministry of Defence contracts for weapons to national defence and to fight political wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Successive governments have also subsidised a commercial arms-export industry to the tune of hundreds of millions a year by financing R&D programmes; paying hundreds of civil servants and diplomats to drum up business for private arms manufacturers; and then underwriting the deals in the event of non-payment.

But, as today’s report by the Nuclear Education Trust (NET) makes clear, these efforts have failed as the British defence industry has been haemorrhaging jobs for years. One in five jobs in the defence industry has gone since the turn of the century due to growing automation and international competition, particularly from Europe and East Asia. Thousands of engineers have been laid off, particularly in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria. Many that remain are in insecure work waiting for the next contract that’s unlikely to come.

The problem of the carpet being pulled from under communities working for a particular industry is nothing new, as we have seen with Britain’s automotive, steel and coal industries. We need to think strategically about how we can support workers through inevitable economic and political change. For example, Barrow has been reliant in recent years on the production of nuclear-armed submarines. But the submarine-backed nuclear missile system will eventually become obsolete or become unnecessary as momentum builds on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It is the job of the government to keep people in work by encouraging the growth of new industries amid rapid technological change and preserve high skilled jobs though manufacturing diversification.

Our arms export business, like our foreign policy, is also levelling Britain and the world with untold costs, both financial and humanitarian. For example, Saudi Arabia buys around half of UK arms exports and it is using them to turn Yemen into a moonscape, creating millions of refugees and new future threats from the Islamist groups which have filled the power vacuum.

Labour is committed to protecting British defence jobs from the vagaries of the market and ensuring that they are actually for defence and not in the service of making a fast buck by arming war criminals.

The best way to do this would be through a Defence Diversification Agency, as pledged by Jeremy Corbyn in his 2015 leadership run and supported by the TUC. It would be tasked with coordinating and funding a programme both to limit further losses to defence jobs, and to provide new opportunities for its skilled workers.

Ending arms sales to dangerous regimes is, comparatively, the easy part. Three quarters of the £23 billion defence sector produces equipment for domestic procurement and half of the remaining quarter goes to nations that do not routinely repress their populations or violate international humanitarian law.

For Britain to sustain manufacturing jobs it must develop its domestic defensive capacity. It can do this by domesticating the supply chains that produce the equipment for national defence. The Royal Navy is procuring its ships from South Korean shipyards. Labour has called on the Government to guarantee three new ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to be built in domestic shipyards, which would create 6,500 jobs. If we let the international market fulfil British defence needs, particularly one dominated by state-backed shipbuilders, we undermine both employment and security at home.

The second component to Labour’s plan is, where appropriate, to diversify under-threat jobs in the military sector into the civilian sector. After all, the skills that are used to make fighter jets for the Saudis are incredibly useful and have myriad other applications.

A University of Massachusetts study concluded that in the US, if the government invested $1 billion in alternative civilian sectors rather than on military production, it would generate up to 140% more jobs.

One way to determine what civilian applications to back is to ask the defence workers themselves. The Lucas Plan, a proposal by thousands of defence workers at Lucas Aerospace facing lay-offs to produce alternative products in the energy, transport and healthcare sectors, did not succeed because the management failed to take it seriously.

It is now vital that central government works with the unions and workers to build a resilient manufacturing sector to provide defence and develop new industries particularly in the renewable energy sector which is already rapidly growing and of existential importance for the future of humankind.

“The arms industry’s principal customer is the government, on whose behalf resources were committed to weapons manufacture,” says the NET report. “Therefore, there is a societal obligation to help return them to commonality with their civilian counterparts.”

This is a very technical way of saying that because we have collectively paid to develop engineering skills used to make planes, bombs and nuclear warheads and sophisticated guidance and navigation systems, these skills should also be used in the service of creating jobs for civilians to produce socially useful products and infrastructure for other civilians. 

In cases where the skills sets overlap considerably, diversification could be relatively simple, for example many of the skills needed to design offshore wind and tidal technologies already exist in the defence sector. But in many cases, creating new and alternative employment for people in declining industries will take time and some of the jobs that will be created will be held by different people in different places to those who have them now.

But the decades-long policy of pushing exports to the Middle East and letting the international market shape domestic procurement will only mean continuing job losses in the future.

The only choice is a long term industrial strategy that sustains and develops engineering jobs in this country and imagines better uses of the skills used to do these jobs than in simply producing war machines.

About the author

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, elected Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown in 2017, has written in condemnation of the British government's policies on arms exports to countries such as Saudi Arabia for use in the conflict in Yemen.

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