Sunday, 9 October 2011

City of puke

Making my way to the railway station in Manchester this morning I had to step carefully to avoid puddles of puke, discarded takeaways and other detritus littering the city streets. In the bright sunshine of a Sunday morning it is apparent just how many shops are boarded up or empty just beyond the recently revamped city centre with its glitzy bars offering “after work drinks” and other cheap alcohol promotions. The red-brick buildings allude to a faded industrial grandeur now superseded by a cacophony of consumption. If buildings could speak they might be telling us of better times with a strong local economy making high-quality products sold throughout the world.

In many ways Manchester represents a microcosm of the UK economy over the last fifteen years: a flimsy property-led boom over a declining industrial base. Thirteen years of “New Labour” oversaw Britain’s continuing crisis in manufacturing on the back of the devastation of the Thatcher era of the 1980s with its squandering of North Sea Oil revenue, overvalued Sterling and high interest rates. Skills and capacity left to rot.

So what’s wrong with Britain? The French engineer, economist and green politician Alain Lipietz has suggested that regions and economies face two main strategies in the face of intensifying global competition: “flexibility” or “skill”. We can engage in a race to the bottom in terms of labour flexibilization and the dismantling of public services or throw everything into improving competitiveness by making better products, design innovation, and most critically, investing in the skills and capacities of people. We know the “skill” strategy works in a European context as the hi-tech industrial renaissance of southern Germany or the “Nokia effect” attest. Why have successive UK governments got their industrial strategy — and by extension their economic policy — so disastrously wrong? I suggest it’s a matter of class and power: complacent and incompetent upper middle-class management rooted in networks of privilege; a nefarious neo-colonial banking system that has never shown much interest in manufacturing industry; and spineless cabals of “post-political” politicians, “consultants” and others with their visionless visions for the future. An artificial regionalism such as the hi-tech gulag of Salford Quays and other “creative city” strategies merely masks the underlying dynamics of decline, falling real incomes and rising inequalities.

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