The looming closure of Tata Steel’s plant in Port Talbot offers an obvious target for Labour. The Government does indeed seem to have been caught on the hop – despite the previous furore over the closure of SSI Steel’s plant in Redcar last October, there are few signs of a plan having been put in place for other sites in a similar situation. That’s not to say that there are a large number of options available to any Government; I reviewed the four main possibilities yesterday, and there is very little comfort to be found in any of them. But politics is a human rather than an economic pursuit - it’s understandable that those whose jobs are at risk want to see action, and predictable that the Opposition will come down hard on a Government which fails to demonstrate much.
Add into the mix that Sajid Javid has undoubtedly been weakened politically by his decision to support the Remain campaign – a call which disappointed many who were his cheerleaders in his own Party – and it’s easy to see why Labour’s nostrils are detecting the possibility of some blood in the water.
But given those twin circumstances, it’s surprising that the Opposition is mounting such a chaotic response to what might otherwise be an open goal.
For a start, what is their proposed alternative? We know they want to, but a hashtag is not a policy. Do they want tariffs, which as Ed Conway lays out in The Times would seriously harm the rest of the economy? Do they want nationalisation, in which case will they expect taxpayers to pay £350 million a year forever for a failing industry, or will they at some point present a plan to make the plant attractive to a buyer? John McDonnell’s four point steel plan suggests nationalisation, with taxpayers footing the bill, and a preferential purchase policy which would see the costs of public projects like Royal Navy commissioning increase – a further cost which the taxpayer would have to bear. There doesn’t seem to be any get-out plan at all. As is so often the case, it seems to be easier to mouth the words “industrial strategy” than to actually explain what one will mean in practice.
In the absence of a coherent policy, they’ve produced a petition for the recall of Parliament. It’s unclear what impact the Commons debating it could make on the issue – besides generating headlines, which appears to be their main objective. Given that Parliament is not being recalled, we’re now faced with a pointless debate about recalling it when it does eventually reconvene. No doubt that’s made for a busy few days for Labour’s online team, but it offers not a shred of help to Port Talbot’s steelworkers.
Finally, they’ve called for Javid’s head. The most absurd reason for doing so is that he took his daughter with him on an official trip to Australia at his own expense, in order to spend a few days on holiday with her after his official business was complete. As I said at the start of this piece, he may not be in the strongest position, but trying to haul him over the coals for wanting to have a family holiday is ridiculous – particularly given that he landed in Australia then flew back within a day due to the seriousness of the situation.
No-one can deny the sadness of what is happening in the steel industry. The job losses and the wider sense of nostalgia for Britain’s mostly lost heavy industries understandably tug at our heart strings. If, as I suspect, the prospect of tariffs and nationalisation prove unpalatable, then there must be every help given to Port Talbot, Redcar and other communities to ensure they have a successful future (the fourth option I presented yesterday).