Theresa May’s general election manifesto unashamedly vows to take decisions on the basis of ‘what works’. A bold and straightforward mantra, it heralds a move away from strong political ideology and the politics of the left, the right or the centre as we know it.
For business, the Conservatives make it clear that it’s all about supporting those sectors of strategic value to the economy post-Brexit to continue to invest and create jobs. Sounds sensible, one assumes.
And while the manifesto says it isn’t about ‘picking winners or propping up failing industries’, it does nod to those industries that the Conservative leadership clearly see as playing a pivotal role in creating that strong and stable economy that Theresa May has built her electoral platform on. Industries such as automotive and aerospace manufacturing, financial services, life sciences, digital technology and creative industries are singled out as the beacons of a burgeoning post-Brexit Britain.
The UK’s biggest manufacturing industry – food and drink – is notably missing from the favourites list. This is despite the industry’s manufacturing prowess, a massive £28.2bn contribution to the British economy each year, larger than the automotive & aerospace industries combined . While May’s commitments on free trade within Europe support these ‘sexy’ exporting industries, there are no specific measures for food and drink despite its supply-chain being worth £100bn to the UK economy annually.
Perhaps most surprising is that whilst the primary component of the UK’s food and drink industry – agricultural production – is mentioned in the context of subsidy support, it isn’t mentioned as the backbone of food and drink. And while the manifesto states there is a determination ‘to grow more, sell more and export more great British food’ (and a free trade agreement would of course support this) there is no clear commitment to prioritise these key industries and put them centre stage.
If re-elected, Theresa May’s party has pledged to create a new agri-environment system, which suggests a joining-up of the food supply chain but, again, this is not until the next parliament – not exactly a key priority.
Workforce and immigration are second only to free trade in their critical importance to the farming, food and drink and wider hospitality sectors. In the beer and pub industry alone, 27% of the workforce are from overseas, a figure which rises to 40% in more metropolitan areas. While securing the rights of EU nationals in the UK is a welcome move, it does little to futureproof skills in the hospitality industry, which currently estimates its European workforce at 23.7% according to a recent report by KPMG.
While Amber Rudd may be considering the merits of the two-year ‘barista visa’, as suggested by Lord Green, to allow young people to come to the UK, work for two years and then go home, there would remain a considerable workforce shortage. According to the report, without EU migration to the UK, there will be a shortage of upwards of 60,000 workers each year to meet demand. Over 10 years, the shortage would rise to 1m people.
It’s positive the Migration Advisory Committee has been commissioned to make recommendations on visas for workers in strategically-important sectors, if the farming, food, drink and hospitality industry is recognised as this in government’s eyes.
If Theresa May wants to govern in the interests of the ordinary British family, it’s vital that she recognises those industries which have been and will continue to be mainstays of the British economy. If given the right support in trade and with workforce, they can play a vital role making the UK a success post-Brexit.