Jeremy Corbyn apes Donald Trump ... but will it work?

PUBLISHED: 12:03 26 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:21 26 July 2018

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to boost British industry
Photo: PA / Josh Payne

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to boost British industry Photo: PA / Josh Payne

PA Wire/PA Images

“Build it in Britain” demanded Jeremy Corbyn this week. And who could argue with that?

On the face of it this plan appears to be a winner: more jobs, more money.

The Labour leader went to Birmingham to unveil his grand proposal and told the audience outsourcing abroad was “sucking the dynamism out of our economy”.

He added: “It must be our job in government to reprogram our economy so that it stops working for the few and begins working for the many.

“That is why we will build things here again that for too long have been built abroad because we have failed to invest. Doing this will allow us to have greater control over the economy.”

Put simply Mr Corbyn wants new Navy ships to be built in Britain. He says he wants to offer better opportunities for British workers. And he wants that controversial contract to produce those new, shiny blue passports taken off the French firm and given to a British one.

This all sounds very patriotic. Mid-speech I did wonder if Mr Corbyn, perhaps still infected with World Cup fever, might start chanting: “It’s coming home.”

The thread that runs through this policy is to use the spending power of the state to bolster Britain’s manufacturing industry. It is not uncommon abroad, even within Europe.

The spark of the industrial revolution happened here and Empire ensured those advancements spread across the globe.

But Britain has not run a surplus in the trade of goods since 1981. That’s 37 long years ago. When is comes to industry Britain is simply not the power it once was.

So good news then? Everyone should be over the moon? Not quite.

The Institute of Directors, not Mr Corbyn’s biggest fans it must be said, were the first out of the blocks accusing the Labour leader of protectionism.

“Protectionism, it seems, is back in fashion,” said the group’s director general Stephen Martin. “For all the criticism of America’s current approach to trade in this speech, the proposals of subsidies and ‘buying British’ are just as protectionist as tariffs.

“Britain has many fantastic manufacturing firms, but the fetishisation of factories and production lines over all other parts of the economy is misguided.”

Mr Martin has a point about protectionism, it does appear to be back in fashion. Mr Corbyn would argue his policy is not protectionist – but there are certainly elements of the plan that nod in that direction.

And across the pond it appears to be working out for Donald Trump. For all the blimps, banners and brouhaha that greeted the president on his recent visit to this scepter’d isle, the US economy is booming.

In simple terms protectionism means restricting imports through quotas and tariffs in a bid to boost the internal economy of a country or region. Mr Corbyn claims his policy will protect workers and businesses by handing them an advantage over foreign competitors.

The re-emergence of this strain of thinking is probably not altogether that surprising. As Western high streets became choked with Starbucks, McDonalds and Apple stores the beloved chippies, tea rooms and family-run shops of yesteryear disappeared. And everyone loves nostalgia.

Open markets and globalisation have changed the world. And many would prefer to return to a bygone time.

But is it too late? Has the horse bolted? What would become of Britain in the long-term if protectionism was to return?

Many economists believe the growth in the US economy is not actually down to Mr Trump’s protectionism but a natural cycle. There is little doubt, however, that in certain regions it has already had a positive impact.

Let us take a great leap from what Mr Corbyn suggested to full protectionism in Britain. What would the impact be? Well perhaps the Labour leader is right – maybe there would be more jobs for British workers. Maybe those abandoned shipyards would once again rumble with the sounds of industry.

But what about the consumer? Protectionism usually means higher prices and less choice. And shopping remains Britain’s number one past-time. Do you really want to give up cheap, fresh fruit and veg? Spam anyone?

Nothing is that simple but the polarisation of British politics in recent years is throwing up ever-trickier choices for the electorate.

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