Let them eat solar panels

5:51 pm - December 21st 2008

by Alan Thomas    

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It was with not a little sadness and familiarity that I read Catherine Bennett’s article in today’s Observer, in which she vocally opposes the idea of a government bail-out for Jaguar Land Rover. It is not so much her opposition to the terms being discussed (I would support an all-out nationalisation rather than the usual cash-injection bailout that has been mooted), but rather an aspect of her reasoning, which is at issue.

There is, as most readers here will know, a long-standing fault line between green and left-wing politics, which has never been fully resolved. On the left, the vast majority of us (myself included) acknowledge the reality of environmental issues such as climate change, species decline or pollution, and we would seek political action to support these problems. Similarly, most (though not all) greens would count themselves as part of the progressive wing of politics, having long ago and rightly dispatched most of the misanthropes and population bombers who infested their movement in the 1970s. However the two movements have never fully married, for all of this apparent convergence, and periodically we see why.

Just to give one anecdotal example, I can remember attending a No Sweat gathering a couple of years ago, where an academic whose name I forget was giving a lecture on the immediacy of the climate crisis. He made, and kept returning to, the point that many of the world’s industries are environmentally unsustainable and will have to change if the crisis is not to become a calamity. This point is plainly true. However I raised the “then what” question, to which he did not appear to have (or want, or indeed think it particularly important to have) an answer. What, I asked, would he suggest as an alternative mode of employment for a coal miner in West Virginia who had never known anything other than the coal industry since he was young. “Well, he’ll have transferrable skills”, came the answer. Like what? “Digging”, the definitive answer delivered with a shrug to suppressed giggles among the assembled audience.

The point here is that whilst green politics does appeal on the left, it only appeals strongly to a certain, overwhelmingly metropolitan and middle class, section with jobs and lifestyles that can easily absorb a switch from cars to public transport, a bit of recycling and buying organic. This is fine if you are within the public sector professions, but rather harder to wear if you are an assembly line worker at Land Rover whose job has to go in order to promote the virtues espoused by others.

And this brings me back to Bennett. She is usually a humane and witty writer, however she treats the jobs and lives which would be shattered by a collapse at Jaguar Land Rover, almost as an afterthought. There are two main points where she mentions the workforce at all:

So, when assessing the plight of Jaguar Land Rover we should ask ourselves – once we’ve thought about all the poor workers – whether we want to live in a world without the 4.2 litre V8 petrol supercharged Jaguar which emits 299g of CO2 per kilometre

So, “once we’ve thought about the workers”, we should get rid of the evil cars anyway, albeit with a certain nostalgic guilt about the union members now swelling the unemployment rolls. There again, maybe their livelihoods are a worthy sacrifice given what bastards Land Rover’s customers tend to be. After all, what’s a few unemployed car monkeys if you get to laugh at Gaunty over drinkies in Farringdon?

Which is not to say Jaguar Land Rover’s workers deserve to be abandoned by the government, like the unfortunate staff of Woolworths. In the unlikely event of the brand’s collapse, public money may be used, instead, to train its former workers to make sustainable vehicles: the recession’s long-awaited green dividend.

Ergo, they could re-train to make Toyota Priuses, in factories that don’t exist, in a region where as far as I know not one major manufacturer is planning to expand. It won’t happen. They’ll end up either on the dole or working in service industries for less than two thirds of what they earned in manufacturing, just like much of the ex-Rover workforce in Birmingham. Substance misuse (primarily alcohol) rises amongst manual workers when they become unemployed, as I and my overworked colleagues can attest to from the bitter experience of people who lost automotive jobs in Coventry. The consequences are devastating.

Unite, my own union and also the one most heavily organised in the automotive sector, has called for a large-scale bail-out of the car industry. For me that would have to be tied (at least) to government ownership of majority stakes in the firms which receive the cash. There would also have to be environmental targets, and longer term I would indeed advocate a change to more sustainable vehicles. However that has more to do with governmental pressure on bosses, than it does with throwing workers onto the scrapheap whilst mouthing green platitudes about how this will not be such a bad thing in the long run.

Unite’s solution is far from perfect. But it is a more humane plan than that offered by “progressives” more concerned with feeling good about their own lifestyles than thinking properly about the human consequences of the policies which they advocate. Workers in the Midlands and elsewhere have suffered enough: it is time to remember who the left is there for.

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About the author
Alan Thomas is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a blogger, a political activist and a lay member of Unite-TGWU. His main interests outside of UK left politics are in Turkey, Kurdistan and the USA. And is also always delighted to write about wine and fine food when he's in less of an intellectual mood. Also at: Shiraz Socialist
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Reader comments

So, to be clear, do you support a large-scale bail-out which leaves government money funding continued production of cars like those criticised by Catherine Bennett, cars which are not being bought in sufficient numbers to sustain the workforce but which are still contributing to climate change?

This sounds like the same Union-led green-bashing which occurs every time greens campaign for nuclear disarmament or an end to the arms trade. If we’d listened to this kind of argument I’m sure we’d still be making asbestos and mining massive amounts of coal.

It’s not facile or uncaring to point to the industries where we need to be redeploying people – the kind of industries which can provide work indefinitely to large numbers of people. I’m sure most union members would rather go home at night having spent the day making solar panels and insulation rather than gas guzzlers for the boss class.

So how do we achieve that utopian situation? And who’s “we” anyway?

Incidentally no, I don’t think that car workers who were told – and believed – that they had secure employment are sat at home thinking “I’d love to make solar panels”, and neither do I think that car workers are the same as nuclear industry advocates.

My point isn’t to disagree with the environmental imperatives about reducing emissions – I think I make that clear – it’s that greens need to come up with some answer to the “what about after that” question which actually addresses the question of what happens to the lives of the people whose lives will be turned upside down by the solutions currently on offer. Furthermore, there needs to be some kind of governmental mechanism for delivering it. “Jon Gaunt and Zara Phillips are bastards and they drive Land Rovers” doesn’t seal the deal for me, and it won’t for those having to live off £60.50/week JSA either.

Hi Alan,
I take it you’ve seen the Green New Deal being promoted by my colleagues in England and Wales?

What do you make of it?


Potentially promising – what I would want to see are some real guarantees to people who work in sectors that are already under threat (like automotive) that they will not lose their livelihoods, and to people who are on low wages that they won’t be punished by having to pay inflated prices for basics such as food and clothes. I guess we’ll just have to see that they come up with and then I’ll make a judgement.

Yeah but Alan there is a company in the West Midlands that makes leg-irons which were used to torture prisoners in Saudi Arabia. When I was working at Amnesty International we campaigned for a tighter ban on the export of goods that could be used to torture people. I remember having a debate at a Young Fabian conference when someone (I think it was Luke Akehurst, but not certain) made exactly the same point that you have just done – what would happen to the poor workers currently employed to make the leg-irons?

Secondly, how far would you extend your logic about what workers should be supported to make and how much support do you think that British car-making workers deserve against, say, Brazilian car-making workers who can produce a cheaper product? There aren’t many alternatives to the car industry in Sao Bernado, why should its products be locked out of western markets?

Incidentally, I had to wait for two hours to be able to post my article just below yours because we were suffering yet another power cut in Brazil. These are very regular occurences because we do not have enough sources of electricity supply – a problem that most developing countries face. There is always going to be a debate between the trade offs between economic growth and environmental sustainability (you give the example of keeping people in unproductive jobs or making them re-train, I could give you much more basic examples of the choices people face when they go to bed hungry every night). So you explain to me why we should not cut down the whole of the Amazon rain forest as fast as possible and screw what it does to the environment?

Conor, you’re a journalist and I work with the mentally unwell ex-homeless. I’m guessing that neither of us will struggle for work through the recession – unfortunately that isn’t true of many people in the West Midlands and that is where I live. Forgive me for asking questions of the great and the good amongst the chatterati about whether these people are actually just expendable numbers in a greater cause.

Look, whatever Luke Akehurst may have said about the manufacturers of shackles, there is a serious issue here as to what the strategy is for dealing with car workers, their families and the social consequences of the mass unemployment that is visible to all and affecting the entire economy in this region. I hardly think that asking “what about after we’ve done that?” is unreasonable when very grand and sweeping statements are made about what is good for the country and the world as a whole. The world is made up of people, and some of them will suffer (indeed have suffered) through the collapse of the car industry. Unless we address that, I fail to see how we justify the “left” bit of “liberal-left”.

PS – take a plane to Brazil did we? 😉

8. Mike Killingworth

The brute fact that no one wants to say openly is that our standard of living is going to fall off a cliff – probably down to what it was in the 1930s.

There is no historical precedent for this kind of decline being well-managed. It means that almost of all of us have based our lives- economically – on what have turned out to be false assumptions.
Those who think, as I do, that the gap between rich and poor in Britain is too wide ain’t seen nothing yet.

We shall be very lucky indeed to escape major social disorder and/or the imposition of an authoritarian government fronted up by a plausible clown (and, yes, Boris does come to mind for that role). We pretend not to notice how many of our dearest values are actively hated elsewhere in the world by people who see them as socially destructive, whether political freedom by the Chinese, or romantic love by the traditional Muslim paterfamilias. They don’t regard the hegemony of Western culture as God-given and at the very least will lose no sleep over our collapse.

And yes, the car workers in the Midlands face a life of squalour, degradation and misery. As, probably, do most of the rest of us. All our politics, left and right alike, is based on the pursuit of economic growth. And that phase of Western history – what Galbraith called the “liberal hour” – is over.

“Our” standard of living wasn’t universal in the 1930s though, was it Mike? I’m pretty sure that Lord Halifax, Churchill and George VI weren’t living in the East London slums.

What is UNITE’s position on the Heathrow expansion and airport expansion elsewhere?

Sue; I’m not entirely sure whether there’s an actual policy although certainly in 2007 the Amicus section published an article on their website supporting it. I have to admit that I don’t know what view the TGWU section (of which I’m a member) takes.

“Unless we address that, I fail to see how we justify the “left” bit of “liberal-left”.”

Why bail out the automotive industry? It seems like you’re advocating the funding of a middle man here and surely we can…in the “left” perspective…be a bit more efficient with our bail outs? A bail out for Jaguar, a particularly poorly performing brand in a poorly performing market, would end up pumping money in to what? At best paying workers wages during a period of poor sales, at worst in to other business costs.

Surely the most efficient thing is to invest directly in the people should Jaguar fail? the £1bn touted would give the 15k workers at Jaguar probably two years salary on average, maybe more….or more importantly would be a much more efficient way of reaching the balance with green credentials of retraining them for work in a similar albeit different industry, on full pay, within a year.

Propping up the banks was important given the level of savings involved and how much a collapse would have cost us all in sorting that situation out, but propping up failing businesses for the sake of their workers is giving failing businesses too much of a safety net using it’s workers as an excuse. Help the workers, ensure that the people that are in ownership of the business aren’t going to fall in to a situation of poverty (as long as their assets are also used in such calculations), but let’s not prop up those businesses that can’t sustain themselves…especially since there are plenty of other businesses closing down (MFI, Woolworths, do we even want to count small businesses?) that are closing down with plenty of job losses on the horizon.

the £1bn touted would give the 15k workers at Jaguar probably two years salary on average, maybe more….or more importantly would be a much more efficient way of reaching the balance with green credentials of retraining them for work in a similar albeit different industry, on full pay, within a year.

Sounds like the beginnings of an answer to me, Lee. All we then have to do is ensure that those alternative industries for which the people are being trained, are there and ready to take them on.

Could a bail out not be made contingent upon research into greener technology? Or am I being needlessly Utopian?

Interesting argument, Lee. One problem, however, is that a bailout wouldn’t just help those working in the car manufacturing, but the people and companies who are reliant on their business, which stretches all the way from haulage companies and parts manufacturers right down to sandwich shops. Would they be eligible for state money as well? And if so, how would the government assess each claim?

I completely agree, however, with the need (should it arise) to provide sufficient help & retraining to these people in the event a bailout can’t guarantee the companies’ long-term future. We failed to do that in the 1980’s, and it’s brought us nowt but trouble.

Jennie; sounds a good move.

Aye, Neil, but then in all honesty that itself is part of a bigger issue is it not? If the car firms are failing then the businesses that rely on them are, at some point, going to have to consider their business model. They can’t exactly claim ignorance on the issue, that’s just bad business sense.

If a bailout could be achieved that essentially pushed Jaguar to evolve, and quickly, then I don’t think there is a problem there either, but I’m very much against the idea of just saving businesses nationally that have managed themselves in to failure, when the people that really need the help are the workers that are disadvantaged by their managers poor business models. Especially since there is no guarantee that if the business still goes tits up that those workers will be at all helped in the mid to long term.

To clarify on “the larger issue”. If Jaguar fails then other companies such as Haulage companies, parts manafacturers, sandwich shops, marketing companies…they all lose business. In doing so, assuming absolutely no disaster planning, forward thinking or business flexibility, some of these businesses end up shutting down, or shedding workers.

That in turn affects retailers on the high street, perhaps the telecoms and internet business…enough people made unemployed there and the effects can domino. Thankfully most business areas adapt and survive, assuming there is the market need for them to do so, and while jobs could be lost in one area and perhaps businesses closed, the change in market share means new jobs in those that survive.

If the car industry is facing such a problem (which we know they are, they have been for long enough now) that companies shutting down means that no market share is being transfered, that’s a whole seperate issue…hauliers, parts manafacturers….if they can’t survive the knock on effect then they (or their workers) in turn need their own support.

We simply can’t be proping up markets through the state that are unsustainable, in the short term it might save some jobs and make people happy, but it only postpones the inevitable, and without the evolution of industry being accepted and the investment in people that has to come along with that, it’s just leading to bigger problems down the line.

Seems perfectly sensible, Lee. I’ve written elsewhere about being reluctantly in favour of the bailout in the States, primarily because the political & economic conditions in that country makes it impossible to implement a satisfactory alternative until the new administration can get its feet under the table.

In Britain we at least have the ability to pick the least worst course of action, and whilst my preference is still to save Jaguar Land Rover (albeit with heavy strings attached), I’m not going advocate the state sustaining it in the short-term if they can’t prove able to sustain themselves in the medium/long-term. If that’s the case, then, as you’ve already said, the money would be better spent elsewhere. My only demand is that we start doing better by the ever-increasing numbers of unemployed than the department of James Purnell seems equipped to do.

Much of my angst about this comes from the stories I heard whilst growing up about family members who suffered real economic and mental hardship when the pits closed. Whilst the area’s economy has rejuvenated to a degree, the scars in those communities still haven’t completely healed over two decades later, and I’d hate to see working class people in the Midlands – or anywhere else – suffer the same fate.

What Lee said in overall terms.

The problem I have with the original article is I don’t get the point of the argument. Are you complaining about Bennet saying that working class factory workers should not get an industry bail-out because you disagree with her argument or just because she is a middle class journalist who lives in London – and therefore has no right to say such things?

I agree with your overall point about the left being more socially aware than the greens (and have taken issue with George Monbiot’s call for a boycott of Brazilian beef and the Guardian’s knee-jerk opposition to Brazilian ethanol on the same basis), but is your argument that the government should prop up the British car-industry as a form of social welfare or what?

My question back to you is what is the ‘social good’ of the British car industry apart from the employment it provides? I can see why the British government should invest in skills and training of its workforce, or the knowledge economy, or green technologies or other socially useful things, but what is it about the British car industry (nationalised or otherwise) that you think particularly deserves support?

“greens need to come up with some answer to the “what about after that” question which actually addresses the question of what happens to the lives of the people whose lives will be turned upside down by the solutions currently on offer”

I agree with this 110% – I’ve blogged about the Green Party needing to speak to the everyday concerns of people, beyond the advocacy of big bold brushstrokes of policy that it as a party is not exactly in a position to enact at present:



Conor, I diametrically disagree with Bennett in that I support full government control of Jag Land Rover, with heavy (green) strings attached. She on the other hand appears to think that it’s OK if they fall by the wayside because the cars are gas guzzlers, the owner is a profiteer (show me a businessman who is motivated by anything else), and because certain celebrity customers of theirs are obnoxious. Then, as an afterthought, she adds “oh we need to consider the workers, maybe we could re-train them”. It isn’t good enough from someone of progressive politics, and yes I think it would look different if she lived in Aston.

Frankly, the problem isn’t that Bennett is a middle class journalist (the phrase, whilst not quite tautological, fits more national opinion columnists than not), it is that it’s a lot easier to look upon several thousand real people as mere numbers to be junked in a greater cause if one never has to see them in the flesh. Further, it’s a lot easier to see removing their means of employment as an almost virtuous cause if their unemployment will never affect one directly, and if one’s main concern is with a choice, rather than an imperative, to take an interest in labour movement politics. I believe that’s what is skewing Bennett’s perspective, and I also believe that is what skews the perspective of many, many middle class liberals and leftists on questions like this one.

PS (sorry I keep doing this)

In answer to your question, cars get people to work. The industry itself provides employment to people as you say, and in doing so puts money into other areas of the West Mids economy. In and of itself, virtually no private sector business has a “social worth”. What’s the social worth of travel agents? Of recruitment consultants? Financial advisors? Futures speculators? Hedge funds? Opinion columnists? “Social Worth” of the industry really isn’t the point – if it were, most of us would be unemployed.

I’m not sure that I like the idea of a bailout of the car industry, for the simple reason that it seems like an arbitrary decision rather than an expression of a universal principle. Why the car industry and not others? Why now when other bailouts have failed to secure long-term viability (Rover)? If the fundamental problem with people making Jaguar cars is that the rest of us would rather that they didn’t (which we express by not buying the cars), any solution which involves them carrying on making them anyway seems to have a fairly fundamental problem.

In the original post, Alan wrote:

…the jobs and lives which would be shattered by a collapse at Jaguar Land Rover…

The problem here is the equation of jobs with lives. The scale of the economic pain that can be inflicted on a community by the collapse of a single employer is effectively being used by that employer to hold those lives to ransom, with the rest of us being forced to pay up unless we want to see a lot of people get hurt, with knock-on social effects as described in the original post. Most decent people don’t want to see that happen, and in any case we have some self-interest in preventing another community falling into a pattern of dysfunction, perpetual unemployment and worse.

But surely paying the ransom to the employers isn’t the answer here? If this were a unique crisis, it might be worth considering doing just that, but industries disappear all the time and for perfectly valid reasons (I consider the move away from cars to be a perfectly valid reason for the car industry to shut up shop and will not shed any tears over it). Surely there’s a way out of this kind of cycle of sudden demands for extra cash ‘or else’? And if we decide to protect the car industry, we’re still left with the problem of why we do not extend the same protection to companies with less vocal workforces.

Basically, I think that if the car industry can’t sustain itself then it should go. We need the resources for other things. The questions are then a) how to help those who lose out find alternative employment, and this is somewhere where I think that we can afford to be a lot more generous than we have in the past and b) how we can, perhaps, try to favour economic arrangements where such a level of dependency on a single employer doesn’t arise in the first place. Sadly, those are questions to which I don’t have a great answer, but both feel more likely to result in a good answer than the question of how to structure a bailout of the car industry.

Rob; replace “car” with “coal” and your argument could have come from a Thatcherite circa 1983. Replace it with “banking” and change the date to 2008 however, and…

Yep, I agree. Thatcherites are a pretty inconsistent bunch. Was that your point?

I think you might have been trying to say that, since Thatcherites were in favour of letting the mining industry wind down in the 1980s, anyone who is now in favour of letting the same thing happen to the car industry must therefore be a Thatcherite. And, since we’ve already established that Thatcherites are cunts, that’s not a thing that anyone here would want to be.

And nor, for that matter, do I. I just think that it’s deeply regrettable that we’re in a position where we’ve got thousands of people whose only option for employment is working doing something that nobody else wants them to do and, when the money to pay for this runs out, the government has to step in to prop it up or face a social calamity in the affected communities. That’s being stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I can’t believe that it’s beyond us to think of a better long-term solution.

Thatcherites assumed that market magic would lead to the creation of new jobs and industries in communities where the previous employers vanished (and they even decided to test this theory on the toughest case of all, the mining communities where there really was just one employer and no other economic resources to build on). Blairites assumed that ‘education, education, education’ was the key, and that people who lost manufacturing jobs could just get a few NVQs in graphic design or something. Both got it wrong, but there is still a question that we can’t hide from: what do we do when industries decline? There has to be a way of letting obsolete industries die their natural death without this being a gigantic blight on the lives of those who, at the moment this happens, happen to be employed by the industry. It seems to me, as an admitted outsider to manufacturing, that the problem is the sheer lack of options faced by people in this position. I’d rather focus on improving the position of these people than propping up their employers.

I’m somewhat with Lee and Conor here – in that one would have to assess the impact on the industry and weigh it up with the futility of propping up a inefficient car manufacturer.

Saying that, I don’t know why this scenario is even being discussed. Jaguar is owned by Tata now – which isn’t in any danger of going bust. Ford used to own it, but its position is also more secure than GM or Chrysler – which are perhaps the best examples of economic mismanagement and deserve to fail.

The broader fault-lines are there – and I do believe that to a certain extent both considerations: of the environment and that of local jobs, need to be taken into account. This isn’t a tension that will be resolved easily – though Obama has navigated it well by focusing on creating ‘green jobs’ and saying the bailout of the auto manufacturers in the US would have to be accompanied by more stress on green economies.

Our govt pays some basic lip service to green issues, and thus would never ask such a thing.

“The problem here is the equation of jobs with lives. The scale of the economic pain that can be inflicted on a community by the collapse of a single employer is effectively being used by that employer to hold those lives to ransom”

What I find interesting about all this is that realistically there are people in the industry that are talking in much more socialist terms. They aren’t calling for bailouts for individual companies, they are asking for the government to act in a way that will restart the consumer buying of new cars. It’s probably less realistic than what’s being talked about here, but it’s important to note that they aren’t just putting the begging bowl out and expecting a hand out; not all of them at least.

29. dreamingspire

First, this morning’s news is that Tata has been able to secure other financial support for the short term.
Next, never mind the Jags, think about the Land Rovers – govt buys them, and they have an export market. (Govt buys Jags, too, but other makes could and do equally well form the basis for armoured limos.).
But also the market for cars in developed countries is never again going to be as big as recently, so think about a diversion of skills into green energy equipment. With our maritime climate we tend to see solar panel installations and household energy recovery systems as indulgences, and thus the small market for them makes them very expensive (and advertising that I have received recently completely fails to give me facts on the financial case, so it went straight in the recycling). Coupled with strong controls on the quality of installation work (and National Grid getting to grips with coping with all those tiny generating plants wanting to sell into the Grid, and the electricity generating companies building pumped storage installations), we should now use transfer engineering skills to benefit nearly everyone.

Yes, but the old heavy industries were unsustainable economically & environmentally. If these car companies are making products people don’t want to buy, it’s most likely a failure of management, so why pay them to repeat their idiocy?

In large part, the pain of the 80s was a result of the mistakes of the postwar years in having an economy overreliant on certain industries & mistrustful of innovation. The problem now is with short-termism & failure to invest in research & development. You’ve gone from postwar stupidity to Blatcherite stupidity without an interlude of sense.

Obama has realised this, & sees the opportunities greening can genuinely provide. There are more than enough entrepeneurs willing to make sustainable products, & hopefully those being shed from the City of London (which was always overblown, especially by the Labour cunts) will start doing something useful in this field.

If there are people who are only good at making cars & nothing else, & if there are whole towns reliant on a single employer, that is a culture which needs to be confronted head-on. This was partly done in the 1980s but not properly. A more diverse economy would be more genuinely resilient.

I fear that the failures of the City & the ridiculous reliance on house prices & debt have left us naked. But it is a sign that things must change, & in this there is an opportunity if government & managers can stop being so utterly shite.

Lest anyone think otherwise, I would like to see a revival of manufacturing, & we suffer from a lack of it, as even fuckwits like Mandelson now realise. But it is a terrible mistake to engage in business as usual. I said the same about the VAT cut, which idea & the “thinking” behind it was flayed alive on these pages & elsewhere.

I used to work in a factory in the summers, & it is a respectable & decent job to be doing. It is vastly preferable to the sheds (oh, sorry, “distribution centres”) that are mushrooming in this city.

Alan: and if you argued that ‘travel agents, recruitment consultants, Financial advisors, Futures speculators Hedge funds, and Opinion columnists’ should be receiving government subsidies I would ask the same question. In fact the banks have just received a massive financial subsidy (they have been nationalised) and that is one of the questions I take up on my own piece below.

I bought a car because I need it to get around in Brasilia where there is no public transport. I caught a plane to travel from Georgia to Brazil because the alternative (boat and rail) was impractical. These were commercial decisions that I made and the only government involvement was to tax the transactions and regulate the activities of the companies (and a good thing too).

Of course I get the point that you thought Bennet’s article was a bit too smug and snearing and if you were a car worker – rather than just someone who lives near my big sister in Brum – you would have a valid complaint. But I think Bennet’s argument was basically legitimate (and I also think that Brazilian landless workers should be prevented from cutting down the Amazon rainforest)

Major problems with environmentally friendly energy generation are often engineering in nature e,g
1. Corrosion of bearings by sea water in wave powered electrical generation systems.
2. Low frequency signals driving away animals – a potential adverse impact on fishing by offshore wind powered electrical generation stations.
3. How to distribute electrical power from wind farms on the western and northern side of the UK.

All these will require highly skilled craftsmen, technicians, scientists and engineers- the type of person employed by high quality car manufacturers.

Over the last 65 yrs there has been a disasterous decline in the number of technically skilled people in the UK due to the unions, employers, civil servants and politicians. Those who are left are too valuable too lose.

Personally I would close down all humanity courses in the bottom 70 universites and use the money on scientific and engineering training. We need to return to the old polytechnic system where craftsmen can study for technical degrees in the evenings and weekends at colleges close to home. The UK will need to achieve the same level of technical advance as we did between 1938 and 1945 over the next 10 years. If we look at our successes;- Radar, Hawker Hurricane, Spitfire, Bouncing Bomb and Ten Ton Bombs,Mosquito,Wellington Bomber ,defeating magnetic mines, Lancaster Bomber, airborne navigation,cracking of ENIGMA and building of Colossus, Mulberry Harbours for DDay, Pluto – underwater fuel pipes, all the speciallist tanks designed to overcome obstacles on the beaches on Normandy, Bailey Bridges etc then we have done it in the past. However, we will have to be ruthless in removing non-technical training from the national budget. We cannot have the situation where teaching maths and further maths , physics, chemistry, biology and geology at A level becomes the preserve of the private and grammar schools.

The technical skills in the West Midlands can be the base for a green future in the UK; it will not be achieved by those with an education in the humanities .

“The point here is that whilst green politics does appeal on the left, it only appeals strongly to a certain, overwhelmingly metropolitan and middle class, section with jobs and lifestyles that can easily absorb a switch from cars to public transport, a bit of recycling and buying organic.”

This has always been my main problem with the green movement. I would in fact go further and say that even the metrpolitian middle class OUTSIDE LONDON cannot easily change to a “green” lifestyle – public transport expensive/rubbish, schools some distance from home/work.

In Bristol, where I live, the only greens tend to be 20/30 somethings with no kids who live and work near the city centre, doing regular hours in the same office 5 days a week. Obviously it’s easy for them to ride a bike/get the bus, and car ownership becomes an uneccesary luxury.

Once you are older, a parent and/or have a more responsible job it becomes impossible with irregular work hours/locations, the school run, synchorinsing the working day with a childminder/your partners etc etc. It just cannot physically be done with the current infrastructure.

“Personally I would close down all humanity courses in the bottom 70 universites and use the money on scientific and engineering training.”

Now that would strike a blow against the SWP from which they would never recover!

Personally, I have a problem talking about “inefficient and unsustainable industries” because it smacks of the Thatcherite worldview that believes that when a business goes down the market will act in such a way that new economic activity will replace the lost activity from the failed business. There are examples where this didn’t happen, when some developing companies dropped their trade barriers the farmers who were undercut by subsidised western imports were driven out of business, in subsequent years the market didn’t kick in and create any kind of new economic activity.

In terms of Jaguar and Land Rover their failure isn’t really down to not anticipating the green revolution but the extraordinary economic situation we’re now in. The thing about the company as it stands is that a) it provides good, well paid jobs and b) it brings together a lot of expertise and infrastructure relating to car production that could potentially be used to take the company in a future green direction.

I personally believe that Jaguar’s current woes are temporary and that with appropriate support and investment it could become a sustainable future business.

“Personally, I have a problem talking about “inefficient and unsustainable industries” because it smacks of the Thatcherite worldview”

This is daft. As you rightly imply, the Thatcherite worldview was flawed in two important ways (1) it artifically closed down individual businesses that were still, or had the potential to be, profitable and (2) it assumed the system would automatically pick up the slack in unemployment, despite the bleeding obvious square peg/round hole problems involved in throwing a manufacturing workforce at a burgeoning service economy.

If someone talks about “unsustainable industries” but then doesn’t then go on to say that therefore everything in the industry should be shut down regardless of individual circumstances and all the workers will be able to instantly get jobs as advertising execs then… well, they haven’t said it, have they. So what’s your problem? You might as well have a problem with people using the word “the” because it smacks of a Thatcherite world view. To deny that some industries may turn out to be unsustainable in pure business terms is ludicrous. How you decide to approach that reality – in terms of provision for workers etc – is surely more to the point.

Alix, apologies, it was my sloppy hastily constructed english. The intended target was those who use such words in the “let them go bust” sense, which seemed to be the thrust of the Catherine Bennett article.

So, Andreas, do you not accept that some businesses (on an individual level) just don’t get their model right, or exist in a shrinking market, to such a degree that they have no opportunity to survive with radical change?

Amazing thread. You all agree that government needs to spend other people’s money to pay people to produce stuff that people don’t want to buy and really DON’T need, and you think this should all be done for progressive ends. But you can’t agree which progressive ends: to save the world or to save jobs!

The green problem doesn’t really need a solution because it isn’t a real problem at all. The environment is important to people but we can deal with it just as soon as everyone agrees its important (when everyone is rich enough not to care about other things). The problem of people’s jobs becoming obsolete is much tougher. More people than ever have transferable skills and with smaller businesses and more self-employed individuals, we are seeing economic forms that are more immune to sudden changes develop.

But what about those that have yet to be opted in to such a scheme or lack the necessary potential to be so adaptable? I am not so sure. I know the European model of greater union/corporation co-operation has worked well where workers are damn near guaranteed a job for the whole of their lives but not necessarily THAT job, and corporations take on responsiblities to maintain their workers – if necessary paying to have them re-skilled for another line of work. I am sure some of these things could develop here if we weren’t so antagonistic when it comes to labour/business relations. But how to get from here to there is a difficult question.


Actually no, I have a “valid” complaint because I’m right about this IMO, and that would still be true whether I was a Jag assembly line worker or a surfer on a beach in California. These people are members of my own trade union and I seem to recall some concept called “solidarity” upon which the labour movement in this country was founded. Furthermore, I notice that none of the people who are so willing to say “sorry but they have to go to the wall” (as I understand it, it’s the “sorry” bit which makes one not a Thatcherite) appear to be car workers themselves. I don’t think that invalidates their right to comment about this, and nor does the fact that the London politico/media/NGO circuit is unlikely to be hard-hit by a further collapse in the West Mids economy. Although mind you, it does lead me to question whether the human aspect of the whole thing has properly been appreciated.

A few general points. As I said, I’m not in favour of simply chucking money at failing private firms. Indeed with the motor industry, more could be done by taking it into public owenership and then dealing properly with the environmental issues caused by Jaguar/Land Rover vehicles. Letting the firm go to the wall and creating economic devastation as a result is not a particularly “green solution”, in fact it is one of which the American Enterprise Institute or the Cato Foundation would heartily approve. It is also a cruel and unfeeling one, in my view.

Further, it always amazes me the way that people seem to believe that the magical capacity of “training” to produce new jobs out of dust. Bennett appears to think this in her original article, and it’s been mentioned several times in the course of this thread. The reality is that training prepares people for jobs that are already there, and if a region collapses economically then all of its residents could be qualified to PhD level without a single one necessarily becoming unemployed.

Alan: forgive me if I was slightly teasing your physical and emotional connection to the toiling masses on car plant assembly lines – it is only relevant in as much as you dwell on Catherine Bennet’s social origins. But, assuming for a moment that you did nationalise the British car industry, how would you persuade people to buy cars which they can get cheaper elsewhere? Look at the Nano car that the Indians are building. How is the west going to compete with that and should we be doing so by going “up market” to produce gas-guzzlers?

The problems of the west midlands car industry are similar to the problems facing Detroit. George Monbiot wrote a piece about this, (which was far harsher than Bennet’s) and it is easy enough to slam them both for being middle class greenies, etc. but how do you deal with their substantve argument?

As Larry Elliot said in yesterday’s Guardian “there needs to be a vision of the good society, the world the left wants to create. The free-market right has one. The Marxists have one. The greens have one. Unless the social democratic left has one – and can articulate it fully – it is finished.”


Lee – Please don’t think you were the intended target of my first comment, I’d only skimmed the comments when I wrote the original comment, in answer to your question: I think that government should consider intervening in businesses that are viable in the long term (I’ll admit this can be a bit subjective), I think that given mass produced fuel cell cars are now a reality a green car industry is very much a reality for the future and that it’s worth Britain having a piece of the action.

On training, I agree with Alan in that jobs don’t always create themselves. Entepreneurs in Britain have a bias towards retail and services businesses and against industry. More generally I think the government should act to counter that balance.

Nick – A huge swathe of the economy is devoted to producing things we don’t need but someone wants, As far as spending other people’s money goes, state intervention has been incredibly effective in kickstarting economic development in the past. A reform of union/employer relations could also be useful as well as a reform of the banking system.

For those not so sure on the benefits of state intervention, I’d advise them to take a look at the work of Professor Ha-Joon Chang he’s written extensively on the subject and although much of what he writes is more centered on developing nations, there are some elements of his work that could be applied to advanced economies.

Andreas – I am hearing more and more about this guy, the new guru of state intervention: http://freebornjohn.blogspot.com/2008/12/cargo-cult-economics.html

Obviously such a large body of work deserves more examination but if the above ripping apart of that Prospect article is anything to go by, he relies on very skewed readings of history to derive these ‘benefits’ from state intervention.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with having an economy that makes things people want. I am saying there is a problem with economies that make stuff people don’t want or need at all! The idea that state internvention can ever kick-start an econony is a weird notion in theory, and doesn’t seem to have ever worked in practice: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2008/12/15/are-we-all-keynesians-now/

So far a lot of the discussion has focused on making cars, I think it’s safe to say that there will be future demand for them. I don’t think there’s been much discussion on other goods. I personally don’t advocate the idea of producing something that no one wants.

Chang’s actual position is more nuanced than the article I linked to makes out, the article in question was intended to promote his book “Bad Samaritans” which is intended to present his ideas in an acessible way.

He is not 100% opposed to economic liberalisation, although he does appear (from what I’ve read of his work) to disapprove of some elements of it. He does advocate protectionism for developing nations although he believes such policies should be implemented in the context of an overall development strategy. I’ll try and write a little more on his work when I get a moment.

I think that Chang’s ideas might well have a role to play too, particularly in understanding the risks of ‘liberalisation’ to developing countries under our current ‘neo-liberal’ market institutions which often act as an ideological cover for state appropriation and extortion of local communities. The emphasis that the neo-liberal order places on intellectual property (a very mixed blessing even in the best circumstances) is damn near unconscionable when it comes to enforcing such laws on the developing world. In those sort of circumstances, protectionism (which really just constitutes self-defence against the unlawful actions of Western corporations) might well be justified.

But for all that, I don’t think those criticisms touch trade liberalisation as such, merely emphasise the fundamental importance of having real property rights, the rule of law and equality before the law in place, rather than the skewed priorities of what Western transnational organisation have decended free markets and capitalism are about.

Sorry – that last sentence was terribly written (I shouldn’t really be commenting while so groggy):

“But for all that, I don’t think those criticisms touch trade liberalisation as such, merely emphasise the fundamental importance of having real property rights, the rule of law and equality before the law in place, rather than the skewed priorities of what Western transnational organisations have decided free markets and capitalism are about.”

“You all agree that government needs to spend other people’s money to pay people to produce stuff that people don’t want to buy and really DON’T need”

No we don’t, that’s pretty much the crux of the whole debate here.

Lee – Correct me if I am being a bit simplistic here but your plans also appear to involve the government deploying cash. You just want it to reach the workers via a different method. But the options a government has are pretty limited. You can pay them to carry on producing stuff that people won’t buy, you can pay them NOT to produce stuff that people don’t want to buy which merely fuels dependency and doesn’t really avoid the problem – you are just paying people to produce nothing rather than something.

Or you can invest it in such a way that the workers can get new jobs. But government is pretty poor at making those sort of investment decisions. If it happens upon a solution (whether it was a certain sort of re-retraining or inventing a new product to make and sell), it would be pretty much by random chance. At the same time, the cost of the government’s actions would have to be taken from somewhere – either from higher taxes now or through a debt which will inhibit recovery because people will be worried about tax increases in the future.

So the best option might be to do much less rather than more. Reduce corporate taxes and/or taxes on low incomes – or at the very least stop spending so much now so that people are less anxious about future tax increase. That way the economy has a better chance of recovery and taking advantage of the labour on offer. Or if you really want to nudge it in favour of those being laid off right now, reduce taxes in a more limited way in the form of a tax credit on training for new workers (r something along those lines). That way you can allow successful firms to co-ordinate the recovery without direct government intervention. The last thing you want is the government itself deciding where the money ought to go. It is more likely to sink it in a useless make-work scheme than something productive for the long term.

“Lee – Correct me if I am being a bit simplistic here but your plans also appear to involve the government deploying cash. You just want it to reach the workers via a different method.”

You’re being simplistic. One argument is that the government should pay cash to businesses that are failing to help workers…with a bit of an angle potentially on that business being long term viable…while the other argument is that the business is failing, but that shouldn’t meant the workers just get made redundant (we think it’s bad for society and the economy) and instead should get aid to help them in to a new industry. It’s two different arguments. The latter doesn’t keep the business propped up whatsoever, it’s just stops workers being the worst affected by management and business strategy screw ups.

Once again, all the possibilities you describe involve the government doing something – therefore spending cash that might otherwise be put to better use in the market – or under present circumstances not spent at all so that our longterm debts don’t become the cause of genuinely viable businesses failing in the future.

Yes, Nick. They do involve the government doing something. Some of us think that when thousands of people are going to be thrust into poverty, through no fault of their own, and when this is entirely avoidable with a relatively small amount of government spending, then avoiding it is exactly the kind of thing a government *should* do – the principal question being not whether it should be avoided but what method does the most good…

What there is *no* question of is no money being spent – unless you think perhaps we should stop paying unemployment benefits to those people? The question is whether it’s better to spend quite a lot of money now, short term, to allow those people to continue to be productive but in different industries, to spend the same amount of money to allow them to keep their jobs in a failing industry for an indefinite length of time, or to spend slightly less right now, but keep spending indefinitely, paying unemployment benefit (and additional spending on healthcare, income support for them when they reach pensionable age as they will have no savings, etc etc) for the same people.

Even discounting the horrific human cost of that much unemployment, even discounting the knock-on economic effects of entire communities losing their main employers, just on a pure cost-benefit analysis it makes sense for the government to do a little more now…

“Once again, all the possibilities you describe involve the government doing something – therefore spending cash that might otherwise be put to better use in the market – or under present circumstances not spent at all so that our longterm debts don’t become the cause of genuinely viable businesses failing in the future.”

No, the possibility I describe means the government doing something to secure the quality of life for people that are made redundent in a failing market with no possibility to upskill or reskill themselves without getting further in to debt in a poor economic environment. It has nothing to do with whether the business itself fails or not, it’s to do with ensuring that where businesses do fail, *people* are protected in the short term from falling in to a cycle of welfare and desperation.

But Andrew – why should it be the government that does this? The money has to come from somewhere and that somewhere will probably better co-ordinate a response than government. Hell, if you doubt the ability of for-profit companies to create work for willing employees in the current climate, then why not address the problem yourself with your own money and (if you have time) your own ideas. Ask the government to leave more money with you and the rest of us and you can choose where to apply it – whether it is buying more things you want or investing it where you think it is worthwhile either charitably or commercially. Trust me, your choices will be much more likely to work than what the government comes up with. Doing good is not a government monopoly.

In the current climate, are companies really going to throw money at reskilling people?

Well we’ll never know will we, while current incomes are being hoovered up by the government and future incomes mortgaged against higher taxes in the future. Of course, the chances of companies ‘throwing’ money at anything is somewhat less than government, that is why it is best to leave as much money as possible with them and us!

Just for the record I have never expressed or held the view that Conor Foley ascribes to me in comment number 5 above. In fact I have never debated against Conor in public.

Trying to compare the manufacture of cars to the manufacture of torture equipment is really fairly odd.

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