What will the Labour Party’s approach to construction be in the run up to the election?

Mark Leftly


MPs of all parties have moaned for months that fixed-year, fixed-term parliaments aren’t working. The legislative programme ground to a near halt over a year ago. The lack of parliamentary business meant that there were barely three hours of debate on one day last month, so MPs were able to hit Strangers’ bar nearly five hours ahead of schedule.

A lucky few have at least been called upon to write their party’s general election manifesto. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, essentially leaked a draft of Labour’s economic plans in a Centre for American Progress report he co-authored with Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, last month.

Heavy on regulation for business, the report tellingly recommended that government use procurement policy to encourage its suppliers to pay the living wage. It also brought together Labour’s widely trailed ideas on insulating 5 million homes by 2025, finally giving the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers, and carrying out a national infrastructure assessment every 10 years.

The word “construction” isn’t used once, even though the industry is obviously integral to these plans. Bar shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna’s autumn conference pledge to hold a full-scale inquiry into the blacklisting scandal, the establishment of an Infrastructure Commission, and the immediate introduction of a Housing Bill to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, Labour has said little about the industry.

Iain Wright, who holds the construction brief, has been quietly developing the party’s thinking on construction for some time now. The Hartlepool MP’s biggest concerns are skills and pay.

Iain Wright, who holds the construction brief, has been quietly developing the party’s thinking on construction for some time now

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Ucatt recently found that construction is attracting only 24,850 apprentices a year, about half the number needed.

Wright is concerned that the subcontracting model squeezes margins and salaries, meaning the industry loses hope of attracting the best young talent. Michael Page salary surveys show that similar industries have better pay in equivalent jobs: a site manager, for example, could expect a typical day rate of £170 against £180-280 for a process engineer in manufacturing.

The recruitment group also found that the overwhelming majority of construction employees felt their organisations didn’t work hard enough to retain top talent.

Mercifully, Wright also says there won’t be any large-scale tinkering with the Construction Industry Strategy as he wants to “keep the certainty” created by sticking to a vision outlined to 2025. What will be developed is how to foster international sales as Labour develops its theme of an export-led recovery.

This is all scant on detail, but Wright has at least identified the problems he will focus on should he start work as business minister in 1 Victoria Street on 8 May. With so little going on in parliament, Wright should also have some time in the coming weeks to fill in the gaps before the general election campaign gets into full swing.

Mark Leftly covers politics for The Independent on Sunday and is associate business editor across the Independent newspaper titles and the London Evening Standard