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German lessons: developing industrial policy in the UK

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Research and reports
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by Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary

The British economy is at a crossroads. With growth stagnating and the public finances facing an unprecedented period of retrenchment the imperative of boosting British manufacturing and securing export growth is greater than it has been for decades. But even without the economic downturn of recent years questions would still persist about Britain's ability to survive and thrive in an era of globalisation. Since the end of the 1970s, Britain has moved away from its manufacturing heritage and focused instead on the service industry - financial services in particular. Whatever the benefits of success in these sectors there is concern at the decline of manufacturing, particularly the impact this has had for specific communities and regions. Many decent, well-paid jobs for skilled manufacturing workers have been lost and the economy has faced growing regional and sectoral imbalances.

The TUC believes that a strong manufacturing sector belongs at the heart of the British economy, and has for many years championed the need for the development of a comprehensive and modern industrial policy. So while we have welcomed the government's recognition of manufacturing's importance, we also know this will require a commitment to actively support its growth. This report sets out some ideas about how this might be done.

Our research was aimed at understanding the practical measures the UK could take to rebalance our economy in the years ahead. The search for expertise led to Germany, a powerhouse of the European economy and a country that has never lost sight of the value of its manufacturing sector. Through meetings with senior managers, works council members and trade union officials in leading German companies, including Volkswagen, Siemens and BMW, we tried to see how the UK could learn from German manufacturing successes.

Our conclusions are wide ranging. We call for a new manufacturing eco-system for the UK: a range of policies needed to bring the country back to its rightful place as a major manufacturing nation. Skills, investment, procurement, helping small firms to expand, finance for strategic sectors and the role of government are all identified as priority areas for action. We also recognise the need for a new economic system that brings management and workers together, rather than pushing them apart, and set out the role of modern trade unions and the value of collective bargaining and of minimum standards.

This report challenges the government to recognise the importance of industrial activism. But we know it is not just ministers, but also companies and trade unions that need to consider the role they can play in achieving change. The prize is significant: a manufacturing renaissance in a rebalanced economy, boosting our industrial strength and enhancing social justice.

Executive summary

This paper is published at a crucial time in the history of the British, and the wider European, economies. The UK's Coalition government has embarked on a radical path of deficit reduction that its supporters argue is necessary for economic strength in the long term and its critics - the TUC is one - believe threatens to pull the rug from under our recovery from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. The crisis in the eurozone could undermine the whole concept of economic union. If the eurozone avoids the worst, it will be in no small part due to the support of the most successful economy in Europe, Germany.

Alongside the short-term need for economic recovery, commentators continue to debate how the Great Recession came about, whether it could have been avoided, and what lessons should be learned. One lesson that seems universally accepted in the UK is that there must be a rebalancing of the economy, away from excessive reliance on financial services, towards other sectors. A renaissance for manufacturing has been discussed in that context. Moreover, even before the economic downturn, the growth of China, India and other new entrants to the world economy were prompting tough questions about how western economies would survive, and thrive, in the 21st century.

The TUC supported a rebalancing of the economy, and a greater role for manufacturing, long before the economic crisis. We have published several papers on this subject and have been keen to learn lessons from other, successful manufacturing nations. As the economic powerhouse of Europe, there were clearly lessons to be learned from Germany.

This paper has been produced in co-operation with Unite, the largest union in UK manufacturing, and IG Metall, which represents manufacturing workers in Germany. It begins by charting the key developments in industrial policy, in Germany and the UK, since 1945. It then describes the state of industrial policy in both those countries today.

Following this, we present evidence from German or German-owned British companies in Germany and the United Kingdom. Interviews have been held with senior managers and trade union officials from five companies based in Germany - Volkswagen, Siemens, ThyssenKrupp, BASF and Airbus - and four in the UK - Bentley (which is owned by Volkswagen), Siemens, BMW and Roballo Engineering (which is owned by ThyssenKrupp). Those senior managers and trade unionists were asked a range of questions about the economic downturn, competition from China, skills, industrial relations, the growth of the 'green' economy and the role of government in industrial policy. An interview was also held with Martin Behrens, Head of the European Industrial Relations Unit at the Hans Bockler Stiftung.

This report tells their stories. The TUC believes that, through their own voices, these managers and trade unionists offer solid evidence and clear arguments for the future of industrial policy in the United Kingdom.

This report also highlights the positive role of trade unions in these companies. This is particularly important in the UK, where so much of the narrative of the media is of a negative, hostile trade unionism. Company and union voices in the pages that follow attest to strong, vibrant, challenging but ultimately positive relationships. Such relationships are valuable at any time, but during an economic crisis the likes of which we have experienced in recent years, they are of tremendous value to both company and workforce.

Following our dialogue with these companies, the TUC calls for a new manufacturing eco-system. Tinkering with policy is no longer enough. What is needed is a radical development of an interventionist manufacturing policy, bringing together a number of individual changes to make a coherent whole. These policy changes include:

  • The need for an economic model that is widely seen as fair among employers and trade unions. We argue that the German Social Market Economy is culturally cherished in Germany, in much the same way that the National Health Service is culturally cherished in the UK. A version of the Social Market Economy in the United Kingdom, albeit one which reflects the UK's history and traditions, could help to unite our nation around values of equality, fairness and mutuality
  • A major role for strong, well organised trade unions and strong employers' associations. In the German system, employee representatives (who are usually trade union members) have seats on Works Councils and Supervisory Boards. They often have the power to block change, but rarely do so. Differences of opinion, even conflict, are recognised and respected, safe in the knowledge that what unites management and union is stronger than what divides them. Trade unions take responsibility for the success of the company. They embrace and manage change, even change of the kind that make them feel uncertain, but bargain hard to defend their members in a changing world. This report contains examples of trade unions at their best: questioning and challenging, but always in a constructive way. It also shows how, specifically, strong unions in the Social Market model were able to support both their companies and their members when it mattered most - during a crisis the like of which the world has not seen since the 1930s. It is in the most difficult of times that our relationships are most severely tested, and the economic crisis - and the way in which unions responded in Germany - highlighted the value of the Social Market Economy in a very particular way
  • The understanding that the UK must specialise in a number of targeted, high skill, high value manufacturing sectors where we are or could become competitive in the age of globalisation. It is not credible for the UK to expect to succeed in all sectors, and skills, R&D and other areas of government support must be aimed at these key sectors. This is not about 'picking winners', but it is about making political decisions to support certain sectors, therefore enabling the development of winners within them. Siemens' work on mega-trends, which is described below, whilst originally implemented at the company level, offers a template for targeting the industrial sectors in which we might specialise
  • Support for key industries in the context of tackling climate change. A good example is the need for a package of measures to support the UK's energy intensive industries, an issue that has already been addressed in Germany
  • The need for urgent action on skills. Companies in Germany and the UK speak of skill shortages, but German companies start from a higher base. Apprenticeships must form the cornerstone of industrial skills, and whilst we have a number of reservations, we wish to discuss the role of University Technical Colleges with the government, on the understanding that true 'parity of esteem' is needed before anyone pursues a path to vocational education that could be seen as 'second best'
  • The need to grow small firms, building an economic rationale for medium-sized firms in wider industrial policy. UK policy discussion is focused on large, world-class companies, such as Rolls Royce on the one hand, and small, often micro-businesses on the other, but there is very little discourse about medium-sized companies. The German 'mittelstand', the network of thousands of medium sized firms in Germany, is often described as the 'backbone' of the German economy and acts as a supplier to larger multinationals. In the UK, small companies are seen as a good in themselves, but no more is expected of them than that they simply survive and provide for their owner or small number of employees. Their place in the wider economy is unexplored
  • A procurement policy guided by the principle that every pound of taxpayers' money should contribute to jobs, skills or the strength of the British economy. government, employers and trade unions should agree on the wider aims of procurement policy, whilst recognising that contracts will always be offered on a case-by-case basis. But a procurement regime that is simply based on lowest cost, offering nothing to the long term development of the British economy, has no place if our industries are to reach new levels of competitiveness
  • A recognition that nationality can be important. German companies operating in the UK, described in this report, have made a major contribution to our economy, but it is a simple fact of life that political pressures in 'parent' countries will sometimes be an issue
  • An understanding that immigration policy can inhibit a company from acquiring much needed specialist skills. Of course, immigration also has the potential to depress wages, especially in the low skill service sector, and can be used as an alternative to proper education and training. Immigration should therefore be seen as positive for high skill, high value businesses, and should be accompanied by the restoration of collective bargaining that is implicit in this paper, and the re-regulation of the labour market to ensure equal pay and fair treatment for those at the bottom end
  • A recognition that informing and consulting employees, collective bargaining and minimum standards are not either/or policies, but both have a role to play in the modern workplace.

The conclusions from this report stem from the interviews undertaken with senior managers and trade union officials, but they must be approached in a wider economic context. Specifically, the TUC believes the imbalance in the world economy, between surplus countries who export more than they import (China, Germany, Japan) and countries which run persistent trade deficits (the US, but also the UK, Spain, Portugal and Italy, among others) must be addressed. Furthermore, Germany's trade surplus has been achieved at least in part on the back of wage depression to subdue domestic demand, which is not a model we advocate that the UK should follow.

This is a commonly held view. Writing in the Financial Times on 27th October 2011, the US President, Barack Obama, said: '...each nation must do its part to ensure that global growth is balanced and sustainable so we avoid slipping into old imbalances. For some countries, this means confronting their own fiscal challenges. For countries with large surpluses, it means taking additional steps to support growth. For export-oriented economies, it means working to boost domestic demand.'

This report is firmly of the view, then, that Germany must take steps to boost domestic demand and must be prepared to import as well as export.

This report also supports IG Metall's call for Germany to introduce a minimum wage. Sixty per cent of German workers are covered by collective agreements, but some workers fall by the wayside of industry negotiations. These workers do not necessarily share in the commitment to fairness and equality that is implicit in the Social Market Economy. Those workers need the support of a minimum wage and UK trade unions would be happy to offer advice and expertise to support its implementation, based on our own experience of this issue.

Full report

'A firewall to stop Europe's crisis spreading', Barack Obama, Financial Times, 27 October 2011.

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