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Tuesday 12th
posted by Morning Star in Features

MICK WHELAN calls for a new economic model that uses public investments to build a strong economy that works for all

INVESTING in infrastructure — in our railway, in roads and in runways — is essential for the economic success of a nation. It is especially important in Britain as we are, in many ways, victims of our early success.

Because the Industrial Revolution began here, on these shores, at the end of the 18th century, much of our celebrated infrastructure — many of the bridges, tunnels, viaducts, and long stretches of track — was built by the great Victorian engineers at the height of the railway boom in the middle of the 19th century. Cutting edge, then. But much of it looks a little long in the tooth now.

Britain needs significant investment — in fast, reliable broadband as well as rail, road and air links — because the ability to move people and goods around the country and provide services over the internet is the platform on which we will, as a country, deliver employment, growth and national prosperity.

It’s ironic, though, that while the need for investment in infrastructure is one of the few areas of consensus in British politics, successive governments have failed to deliver the much-needed funding it requires.

The Tories, their backers in big business and their chums in the media — the rightwing commentators in the press, on radio, on television and online — like to peddle the notion that trade unions are Luddite. We’re not.

Aslef has always argued for investment in the railway. Partly because we know it will be good for Britain. And partly, frankly, because it should be good for us. More investment will mean more trains, and more trains will mean more train drivers.

But the Conservative Party is instinctively reluctant to invest public money, even though many Tory MPs admit, privately, that they know the private sector cannot and will not deliver what is needed.

The latest World Economic Forum report ranks the United Kingdom 24th out of 138 countries in the world — a damning indictment — on the quality of national infrastructure and notes that the country invests less in infrastructure, as a share of GDP, compared with similar First World countries — spending around 17 per cent of GDP compared to 21 per cent in France and 23 per cent in Japan.

Public investment in infrastructure pays for itself very quickly. It also improves the quality of jobs, skills and training and enhances the lives of citizens through improvements to housing, transport and the digital economy as well as reducing carbon emissions.

That’s why we welcomed the Labour Party’s pledge to create a national investment bank in order to rebuild Britain’s industry.

And that’s why we want the TUC general council to campaign for greater infrastructure investment as a way of stimulating the British economy to create good-quality, sustainable jobs in a new economy which works for all, not just the few, and will create better lives for the people who live and work in Britain.

Austerity has palpably failed — the general election in May showed that people are fed up with the Tories’ mantra that there is no alternative — and a new economic model is now needed to build a strong economy that works for all.

Investment is key because it is the engine of sustainable economic growth. John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, first showed how a government spends, rather than cuts, its way out of recession.

That was understood by former US president Franklin D Roosevelt when he introduced the New Deal — and big public infrastructure projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam — to drag the United States out of the Great Depression. FDR knew the value of “pump priming” — federal spending — to get the US economy moving again.

Because a worker on a public project with a dollar — or a pound — in his or her pocket will spend it in a shop which will order more goods to get the manufacturing and retailing cycle revolving again. It’s good economics, as well as good politics.

Investment in infrastructure — not just transport and communications but energy and housing, too — will provide the necessary revenue and resources for the public services and social security system this country deserves.

The government has the key and, if it chooses to turn the key in the door, it can unlock the future prosperity of Britain.

We need greater investment in infrastructure, equipment, services, skills and innovation; positive procurement to ensure that industrial supply chains across Britain can benefit from that infrastructure investment; policies that ensure the positive potential of automation is realised for all; corporate governance reform to end the endemic short-termism we see in so many businesses in Britain; and support for the voice of the workers, strong trade unions and collective bargaining.

  • Mick Whelan is general secretary of Aslef