Mandelson’s ‘industrial activism’ to boost innovation-too little too late

14 10 2009

images[3]I am finding it increasingly difficult not to like Peter. He is a key fixer in a long tradition of manipulative politicians going back to Francis Walsingham under Elizabeth the First. There is an element of pantomime about him, somebody the public likes to boo or hiss when he appears on the stage. He has chosen to throw his weight behind the project to stop Labour sinking without trace. There is something quixotic and admirable about this, whatever one thinks of Labour.

 Listening to him speak at this event yesterday it became clear that he is converted to a policy of ‘industrial activism’, that is the government taking a leading role in the nurturing and development of innovation and investement. This new initiative on bioscience looks on the surface like a good idea. It is important for the state to use its resources and authority to enable economic development as I have argued before on these pages.

The problem with Labour’s  current attempts to move from financial to real engineering is that they are too little too late. The sums of money being made available by the state for assistance to new businesses and innovation are tiny relative to the scale of the problem. Nor is this just a problem at the  state level. As a society the UK has little appetite for risk. As Mandelson pointed out in his speech, investment in research and development in the UK is lower than for many of the UK’s competitors.

Labour has come late to industrial activism. For most of the past twelve years the main focus of government activity has been on boosting spending on health and education. This extra spending was financed largely by the expansion of financial services and an increase in debt, in other words through spending the money that Chinese people have been earning.

At least in part, the focus on health and education was in response to market research which indicated that these were the areas that people in the UK were most concerned about. It is all very well for governments to respond to the wishes of its electorate. To some extent this is both inevitable and desirable. However there is another part of government responsibility which Labour has largely evaded, that of leadership. There are key areas of the UK economy which have required investment and support, such as nuclear power stations, better roads, investment in GM and other new technologies, which the government backed off from because they were unpopular. Rather than trying to win the arguments for these various key projects the government caved in, often ordering lengthy inquiries and further tests rather than risk making itself unpopular.

The Stevenage bioscience project which Mandelson announced yesterday is aimed at boosting the development of the UK’s drug industry. Yet the pharmaceutical industry has been vilified over the years in many quarters and its products, such as the MMR vaccine, held up as public dangers. When Blair was confronted with this vilification he famously declined to say whether he would give his son the MMR vaccine, thus encouraging those who irrationally opposed its use.

The UK government going forward has to take a more activist role in planning the shape of the UK economy. Its role has to encompass persuasion and leadership to convince an often sceptical public of the long term benefits of innovation in energy, technology and science.

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