Len McCluskey: Hammond must seize the opportunity to change direction and invest for long-term growth

The astonishing “Who’s side are they on?” demands from Tory minister Steve Baker of those on the Labour benches working to force the release of the 58 papers which detail the economic impact of Brexit on our nations and industries, underscored the topsy-turvy world inhabited by the Conservatives.

“What have you got to hide?” is my question to Mr Baker. Faced with the most challenging issue since the war, we deserve to know what is being done in our name.

It seems that in all things this government puts its Tory party above the interests of this country’s people. The prime minister’s failure to send clearly sack-deserving ministers to the backbenches is not because she considers their individual cases to be of merit but because she is imprisoned by her party.

But while her main focus may be just getting through the day without another piece of her ramshackle government falling off, what about the rest of us?

We now have a bill before the House which offers no vision or clarity on our future trading relationships with the world but does confer upon the government enormous power to swipe away UK workers’ rights and job protections, and leave our NHS and public services vulnerable to predatory interventions from overseas and private sector interests.

TTIP on steroids is how the trade bill is being described. Of course we saw off TTIP, with all its impact on jobs, rights, living standards and public services and we will again. Unite, and the wider labour movement, will shine a light on the impact of its proposals on all our lives.

Brexit economist Patrick Minford’s claim last year that an EU exit would “mostly eliminate manufacturing” looks not so much a prophecy to Liam Fox but an instruction.

But I believe that a better Brexit is possible – were Labour in power to deliver it. A Labour Brexit would leave no doubts over our rights, jobs and NHS. It would not see us bend the knee to US interests pushing chlorinated chicken into our supermarkets and our farmers out of business. We’d see a responsible government investing in the skills and infrastructure needed to ensure we can make our way in our new world, confident that we can deliver.

It would remove the crippling uncertainty being created over our access to one of the world’s biggest trading communities. Investment, pay and productivity are all stalling because business is losing confidence in the Tories’ handling of the talks. And Labour would use this month’s Budget to provide some reassurance to jittery employers.

It’s a budget that may be this government’s final drink in the last chance saloon. On behalf of Unite members, I want to hear Philip Hammond seize the opportunity to change direction and invest for long-term growth. I want him to set out exactly what sort of contingency planning and funding there is for new jobs. Manufacturing supply chains are undoubtedly the most vulnerable to a calamitous Brexit, which this government appears unable to avoid. So I want Hammond to establish a Brexit Support Fund to target investment where we most urgently need to build for our future, to free up sites and for new technologies, such as electric car batteries, in which the UK lags significantly behind competitor nations.

Alongside support for reskilling and talent creation, let’s see government take a public stake, not just to prevent big business controlling the fund, but to send a message to manufacturers that this country is a place to do business fairly and with confidence. And let’s hear Mr Hammond announce measures to incentivise reshoring. There should be nothing in it for firms like Delphi Diesel Systems to move their work to Romania, attracted by hefty government subsidies.

Rather than attempt to seduce business with the now lowest corporation taxes in the developed world, why not increase capital allowances, following the example of President Obama’s 2012 “Blueprint for US manufacturing”? As Obama said then, we need a tax code that stops giving tax breaks to companies moving away and start putting those tax breaks into ones that are investing here.

Unlikely candidate as he may be, it falls to Hammond to halt the tragi-comedy that is now British government. He can do so by showing whose vision he adheres to – working people and the good businesses who want to commit to a strong future for the UK, or the likes of Patrick Minford, who see Brexit as the opportunity to make this country a bargain basement economy floating off the continent.

But if this government cannot, will not, put us, the people, above their party then it is time for them to leave the stage.

Len McCluskey is Unite general secretary

A version of this article appears in Tribune magazine