The decline of the steel industry raises real questions for the left?

“If L S Lowry was painting today he’d be painting [in Notting Hill], not Manchester. Because this area is the dormitory for the biggest factory in this country: the factory of finance.” These are the words of Henry Mayhew, a City employee and Notting Hill residence interviewed in the BBC documentary The Secret History of our Streets. Manchester was once been the driving force behind the industrial revolution, but today most of the economic activity of the country is generated in one square mile.

Whatever you think of the bankers of the City of London, they are the economic engine of the UK and generate most of the wealth in the UK. This wealth does not make it far out of the South East or through many social classes, but the fact remains that we have traded factories for financial models.

This is mainly because our economy has been pivoted toward the City, through decades of privatization and financial deregulation. The 2008 financial crash and the subsequent recession has only increased our relevance on the City to generate economic activity. Neo-liberal economists would argue that this is because we have a competitive advantage - literally an advantage that makes you better than the competition - in banking and financial services. In Lowry's day, our competitive advantage was in steelmaking or coal mining. Things have changed. Time marches on. However, we cannot all be bankers and move to London, so we should probably think about the jobs everyone else is going to do.

A thousand people currently employed in an industry where the UK does not have a competitive advantage are about to lose their jobs as the Teesside Steelworks in Redcar closes down. With the closure of Tata Steel as well, it is clear that the UK steel industry cannot compete in the global steel market - especially against cheap steel being produced in China. Only the coldest neoliberal economist would dismiss the problems of these thousand people, their families and communities. Clearly something has to be done for them but retraining unemployed workers in their 40s and over is not something we have been historically good at in the UK and no one is talking about how we can change this.

Faced with the mass closure of steel plants, the conventional free-market wisdom is to rebalance the economy towards an area where we have a competitive advantage. The idea is that the government invests in science, engineering and computing education, to train young people in work in the high tech industries of the future. This is writing off the steel workers losing their jobs, but offering them the chance that their children can work in new industries.

Put this in the wider context of decreasing social mobility and we see how empty this promise is. People from poor backgrounds with unemployed parents have not historically done well in a liberalised labour market. Even if we created thousands of high tech jobs in former steel towns then these jobs would not go to the children of steel workers, because by taking their parents jobs away we are giving these children a competitive disadvantage in the labour market. Given the current state of social mobility and the labour market, what is left for these people or their children? The only jobs being created in these areas are working in a distribution centre - in other words low paid and insecure. In the current labour market the future does not look good for the people of Redcar.

The closure of Teesside Steelworks and the Tory's recent agreement with China to build a new nuclear power plant are often mentioned in the same breath. Opening up our domestic markets to global completion has destroyed the steel industry. There is no shortage of demand for steel in the UK, however it is much cheaper to import it than to buy it from Tata Steel, the company which owns the Teesside Steelworks. The fact that the Tories need to make a deal with China to build a new nuclear power plant is because the twin snakes of deindustrialisation and globalisation has got rid of all the British firms that could have built the new power stations. Any jobs created by opening our construction industry up to China will be offset by the job losses caused by opening our steel industry up to China.

The aforementioned neo-liberal economist's solution to this issue would be to move the entire county up the supply chain. Rather than competing in making huge amounts of raw materials at a low price, focus on making more complex products that China does not produce. The only problem with this is that China also wants to move up the supply chain and in the future we will be competing against cheaper Chinese software or financial products. Even if China does change, none of this will help the newly unemployed steel workers or their children, for the reasons mentioned above.

Cameron and Osborne clearly have not thought this through. As they open the country up to increasing competition from globalisation more and more businesses will be forced to close. Cameron and Osborne, like the neo-liberal economist, insist that job losses are a temporary and are a necessary pain to pass through as we move to more prosperous future economy, much the same way that they justify their spending cuts. The problem with this approach to globalisation, like austerity, is that it is never Cameron or Osborne or anyone they know or anyone in their constituencies who loses their jobs or tax credits. Their set are always the one to benefit from globalisation but never the ones to pay for it.

Ignoring the problems of globalisation is not a trend which began with Cameron and Osborne. Since the 1980s the UK has moved away from manufacturing and towards financial services and job losses have been dismissed as the cost of structural readjustment. This dismissal of the problems of globalisation has led to under investment in our manufacturing, which has meant closures and job losses. The proof of all this is in the China power plant deal. No firm in Britain can build it, because we have no invested in these skills in the race towards our competitive advantage in finance.

Globalisation, deindustrialisation and the problems it has cerated for communities has been met with a shoulder shrug from society as a whole. In Britain we are more than willing to throw thousands of steelworkers under the bus to have cheaper smartphones and holidays abroad. When we choose to think about the poor people who lose out we shake our heads and say there is nothing to be done.

No one on the left has a solution to this problem. Corbyn is critical of the free market which created the problem but he does not have a solution. He talks about investing in infrastructure but you cannot talk about infrastructure without talking about industrial infrastructure. There is a difference between what we can produce and the economic capacity of the country, i.e. having roads and railways are pointless without factories or services to generate economic activity. Using state spending to give these declining industries a competitive advantage will not work either, the government already spent £1 billion on the Teesside Steelworks and could not make it produce steel at a competitive price.

So, we come back to the same problem. What are these communities supposed to do as their jobs disappear? Move to London? Clearly not an option for everyone. Invest in a Northern Powerhouse to create new employment outside London? Good idea and something I support, but there are four problems:

1. There is a lot of talk about this but nothing is actually happening.

2. It does not help the people who are losing their jobs today.

3. Making Manchester or Liverpool a bit more like London will not help Blackpool or Whitehaven or Workington. The brain drain will just have less far to travel

4. By the time all these new industries are established in the Northern Powerhouse they will have to close because China will have moved into these industries in a big way and the North will have gone from being unable to produce steel a competitive price to being unable to produce software or microcircuits at a competitive price.

Maybe the solution is an L S Lowry type figure taking pictures, or making films about these towns and their people, so that it becomes harder to dismiss them. We need to have more understanding and sympathy for the people who are losing their jobs. That is the best idea I have and calls of compassion have a poor track record at tackling economic problems.

We need to do something about the loss of these jobs, we cannot just leave these people and communities to slide into absolute poverty because it is what our neo-liberal, free market ideology demands. The left does not have an answers to this questions, these industries their workers and unions used to be the backbone of the labour movement, why is there not a left wing clamer to do something about these job losses? Corbyn's retro approach to politics will not work in this situation. We need new thinking.

The middle class should pay attention to what is happening in Redcar, as the twin snakes of globalisation and automation are coming for their jobs too. We can try and move up the supply chain to protect the jobs we still have but China is also doing so and competing against China in a liberalised global market has not gone well so far.

Putting up trade barriers is not the solution, that is the same as pretending the world economy has not become globalised. Retraining workers who lose their jobs under the current system is not a solution, not unless we redesign our education system and spend a lot more money on it. Shrugging your shoulders and saying there is nothing that can be done for these people is not a solution either. We need radical new thinking to tackle this problem. We need thinking that questions the established orthodoxies of the free market but also accept some of the aspects of globalisation that cannot be changed.

The lesson from what is happening at the Teesside Steelworks is that during the time of Lowry the work which sustained our economy was done by many people in unionised and relatively well paid and more secure jobs. Now the work is done by a few people and everyone has less secure jobs. We have gone from factory workers to bankers and cleaners. We need to tackle this issue of deindustrialisation, economic change and globalisation before we become a country with only a few highly specialised City jobs, which still make money in the one specific competitive nieche China has not priced us out of, while the rest of us work in low skilled, insecure and low paid jobs.

Internships and Wealth Inequality

Internships have long been blamed as a means by which wealth remains concentrated amongst the upper classes. Most of the positions available at some of the UK’s largest and most prestigious firms to young people starting out on their careers are unpaid or come with a bare minimum of transport fees reimbursed. For young people looking to gain the vital experience necessary to secure a job, an additional source of income is needed to pay their cost of living during an internship which could last for several months. Firms expect an intern to be present during normal office hours which rules out most forms of employment and the long hours and demanding timetables frequently placed on interns also makes evening employment difficult. Generally interns rely on what has become known as ‘the bank of mum and dad’ meaning that only the children who have parents wealthy enough to pay their way can afford to take up an internship.

To a firm, having an internship is not only a desirable characteristic in a prospective new recruit but is increasingly become essential. In a government survey, one third of British firms said they would only hire a new recruit who already worked for them. The most obvious illustration of class perpetuation through internships is an annual Conservative Party fund raiser to which Mayfair based capital and equity firms donate internships which are then bid for by part donors, the proceeds going to the party. At this event, those who can afford to spend several thousand pounds to secure their child an internship at a top finical firm (as well as paying their children’s living cost during the internship itself) spend their money to guarantee one of their children will have a well-paid career.

The incentive for parents who can afford this for their children is clear. Not only is it a good way to give your child an advantage over the competition in beginning their corporate career but by ensuring your child has a well-paid position, parents are preparing for the retirement by providing their children with financial success. The net effect of the recruiters relying on internships to vet candidates at the beginning of their careers is the concentration of wealth amongst the privileged class. Only the wealthy can afford to furnish their children with the internships that are necessary to secure well-paid jobs.

Recently Nick Clegg and the coalition government have announced plans for major companies to offer more starting positions to people from less well-off backgrounds and to offer payment or living expenses to interns while they are working. Although this is noble in intent it fails tackle the root of the social inequity caused by the internship system. It is impressive that Nick Clegg has managed to convince so many large companies to agree to a scheme which offers firms little more than a PR boost, but by making the proposals opt-in rather than legally binding there is no incentive for most firms to alter their behaviour at all. An outright ban on internships would force firms to at least offer minimum wage to those gaining work experience which would go some way towards leveling the cost barriers to most young people taking up internships.

The plans are welcome news to those with an eye on becoming a senior corporate executive but hint at a fundamental flaw in the collation government’s approach the issue of wealth inequality; in that they expect private business to tackle the issue with government only very gently prodding the companies in the directing of socially conscious capitalism. Making internships more accessible to those who dream of vast corporate wealth is one thing but the issue at the heart of capitalism is the fact that regardless of how level you make the playing field, the majority of people will end up owning a small percentage of the wealth mean while a few people will own the majority. The question is what can be done about this and the answer the government suggests is ‘nothing’.

Reforming the internship mechanism may make it easier for those from poor backgrounds to get internships but will do almost nothing to tackle wealth inequity. It will also have a negligible effect on social mobility as there will remain a finite number of internships and even smaller number of people who reach the higher echelons of the corporate hierarchy. The people at the top of pyramid may vary slightly but this does nothing to comfort those at the base or those who question the virtues of a pyramid structure.

Hinting to large companies that they should be more socially aware will not solve the problems of a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Most of the coalition government’s austerity program is cutting the services that the poorest members of society depend upon. The government needs to do more to tackle wealth inequality rather than smoothing off the edges or implying that large firms should be readdressing the wealth balance themselves.