Promises on public spending and skills have swayed construction from the Conservatives to Labour

Sarah Richardson

For a so-called “snap” election, the campaign leading up to next week’s vote has felt like a pretty long one for Theresa May’s Conservatives. As Building went to press this week, the party’s lead in the polls had been cut to under 10 points from around 17 at the start of the campaign, although the Conservatives are still far and away the bookies’ favourite to be returned to government.

When it comes to the construction industry’s views on the vote, the swing away from the Tories has been even greater than the national average. So much so, that a survey of Building readers published this week showed that Labour had a lead of almost 3 percentage points over the Tories among industry professionals. Just 36.5% said they intended to vote Conservative, compared with 40.4% of the same respondents who did last time out, in 2015.

So, what’s changed for the sector? Clearly, how those in the industry will vote is going to be based on a mix of personal and professional views; but the survey found that the voting intention was underpinned by a strong sense that Labour had the best policies for the industry. Forty-four per cent believed a Labour government would be best for construction, compared with 37% who thought Conservative and 14% Liberal Democrat.

This may come as a surprise given the Conservatives’ reputation as the party of business, and May’s boast of “strong and stable” leadership for the economy through Brexit negotiations. And indeed, in our survey, the Conservatives were judged most likely to secure barrier-free access for construction products during transitional Brexit arrangements, and to make construction a high-priority sector during the negotiations - despite not having done so so far.

But two other key areas of policy have tipped the balance of opinion towards Labour: public spending, and skills. Almost 60% of industry professionals believe Labour will ensure greater spending on public projects, such as housing and transport, compared with 28% who believe that would happen under the Conservatives.

This has always been a feature of Labour governments, but concerns that Brexit nervousness will hit private construction, particularly in the commercial sector, mean that the outlook for public work has taken on added significance. Many companies are still scarred from the legacy of the last downturn; their voices will add to those who have long argued the logic of counter-cyclical building by the public sector to take advantage of lower building costs, while providing surety of work to the sector.

When it comes to skills, there are two areas in which the industry believes Labour has its back: confirming the rights of EU construction workers already legally working in the UK, and allowing as much freedom of movement as possible for skilled construction workers from the EU as part of a new immigration policy; and helping to establish a robust training system for future UK construction workers.

The level of concern over the future availability of skills in the sector appears to be rising. Almost one in five companies are experiencing difficulties recruiting workers, according to Experian research published this week.

So, the good news for construction, should the Conservatives triumph as expected next week, is that addressing the skills crisis is to a large extent in the industry’s gift.

While the nature of immigration arrangements put in place after Brexit would have a huge impact on today’s industry, there is significant scope for the sector to reduce its reliance on labour through improved productivity and digital and offsite construction techniques.

This, coupled with a concerted effort from employers to work in partnership with training providers to ensure a viable training system is in place, and to improve the sector’s image to future recruits, would give the industry a significantly brighter-looking future.

It is in the transition to that point where government help is really needed, in the form of interim arrangements to counteract the loss of freedom of labour movement in the EU, and beyond that, a mechanism which enables skills gaps to be filled with overseas workers. On this, the Conservatives have said they will help industries that help themselves – which adds another huge incentive for the sector to put its own house in order on training.

The question of spending on public construction projects, and other policy intervention that stimulates work, is of course, down to the next government to decide.

The Home Builders Federation this week issued a shot across the bows with a plea for the next administration to extend Help to Buy, saying it had been “absolutely key” to recent rises in housebuilding. Whatever the result of next Thursday’s vote, the pivotal role construction can play in helping the economy needs to be the message the sector presses home.

Sarah Richardson, editor