Many a construction boss is scathing about the Conservatives’ record in office, but that is not the same as embracing the alternative

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Glad you’ve been spared almost a year of our national conversation being dominated by a looming general election? The bookies’ odds had been on a November polling date, and frankly most business folk were rather non-plussed by the prospect. “Just get it out of the way so we can focus on growing the economy” was very much the attitude we picked up at the start of the year. For once your wish has been granted, and all the campaigning noise will be over and done with before the summer holiday season.

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A relief for some perhaps, but it does mean a barrage of daily updates from the political parties and indeed this week as we went to press the three main manifestos were being released for public scrutiny. It may take some time to flush out the implications of the commitments made in these lengthy documents, but already we can begin to see sentiment among construction professionals moving – cautiously rather than whole-heartedly – towards backing ideas put forward by the Labour party, which is still streets ahead in the national polls.

Our many interviews with company bosses as part of our Election Focus coverage reveal a real sense of frustration that under the current government construction’s prospects have stalled or gone into reverse.

Even well before we entered this election year, a clearly infuriated Steve Morgan, the founder of Redrow, accused ministers of seemingly being intent on destroying the housebuilding industry – and used some pretty ripe language to do so.

Our election focus  coverage reveal a real sense of frustration that under the current government construction’s prospects have stalled or gone into reverse

While not everyone expresses themselves in Morgan’s style, others are nevertheless clear in their specific criticisms of the policy decisions taken by this Conservative prime minister and the four before him. Policy flip-flopping on net zero and big infrastructure programmes is a big concern, as is the lack of long-term thinking when it comes to drafting an industrial policy, reforming the planning system or investing in construction skills.

In this edition we have an interview with Adam Turk, the new chair of the Construction Products Association, in which he says his “gut feel” is that Labour will “probably engage better, give the industry a bit more time and will probably provide a better platform for the construction industry”. This is coming from a man who used to be a member of the Tory party. He does not actually say he would vote for Labour and, worryingly, he says “we have not had any kind of appropriate engagement from the Labour leadership – and we have tried”.

>> Also read: 

>> Liberal Democrats outline housing and net zero plans in manifesto

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>> Labour unveils plans to unblock prison building and force firms to train domestic labour force

A contractor boss I spoke to was perhaps more positive about Labour under Keir Starmer’s leadership. As a rule, main contractors do not normally declare allegiance to a political side, it is just not great business: if you back the winner they can take you for granted, and if the other lot get in you’ve perhaps lost potential friends. So instead there has been work behind the scenes for over a year on the part of some firms to get close to key Labour players, and the ones that have impressed most are in Rachel Reeves’ shadow Treasury team.

Sounding upbeat, this boss told me he felt optimistic that a Labour government would bring “fresh leadership, new ideas and a new impetus”. He felt change coming not only because of a simple party slogan but because in his view the party has been listening to construction firms. But, and this is quite a big but, he admits that getting the party to engage in some of the detail has been a “struggle” at times.

Our reader poll published this week indicates others are also sympathetic to Labour’s pitch, with half saying they are most likely to vote for the party. While this was only a small sample of readers, what is interesting is that this group’s views have shifted since the 2019 election when only 33% voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. It is also revealing that support for Labour increased when asked about specific policy areas such as skills, housing, public sector capital spending and reforming the planning system.

But of course the survey also revealed a full range of political views, as you would expect in any industry where people do not speak with one voice. Comments spanned everything from “there is not much to choose between them” and “the economy always tanks under Labour” to “after 14 years of failure, the country desperately needs a change”. There was also a vocal minority standing up for the policies of the Liberal Democrats and the Green party, although the realities of the first past the post system led to a lot of comments such as “I would love to follow my heart but I think I will be voting tactically to ensure the Tories are out”.

So is it possible to say the construction industry is definitely leaning towards Labour at this point? Maybe not. The manifestos might change that of course, but the sense is that professionals in this sector are mostly just frustrated after years of government policies that have failed to boost growth by harnessing all it has in terms of talent and potential. Most are not fervently on one political side or the other, they just want politicians who think about investing in the fabric of this country for longer than one electoral cycle.

Chloe McCulloch is editor of Building

Election focus

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With the UK set for a general election on 4 July, the country is facing some serious problems.  

Low growth, flatlining productivity, question marks over net zero funding and capability, skills shortages and a worsening housing crisis all amount to a daunting in-tray for the next government.

This year’s general election therefore has very high stakes for the built environment and the economy as a whole. For this reason,

Building’s election coverage aims to help the industry understand the issues and amplify construction’s voice so that the parties hears it loud and clear.