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Manufacturing centre is election battleground

Published:Friday | April 23, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Dudley, England (AP):

Shrouded by the white lace curtains for sale in his market stall on a gray spring day, Dean Mitchell waits with arms folded for customers. And waits.

There's plenty of people milling about at lunchtime on Dudley's main square, overlooked from high on a hill by the ruins of an 11th-century castle. But money is tight, un-employment is high and nobody is buying.

The dilapidation of Dudley and the surrounding 'Black Country' of the West Midlands - the heart of Britain's former industrial power-house that proudly exported coal, steam engines and cars to the world - has made it a major battleground in Britain's closely fought national election.

"I have never voted in my life before," says Mitchell, 42, who worked on the production line at the Rover car factory in nearby Longbridge until the company went bust. Like many locals, he believes that Britain's ruling Labour Party could, and should, have done more to save Britain's manufacturing sector when companies chose to move production to cheaper work forces in Asia and eastern Europe.

"I am voting this time, and I'm voting Conservative," he says. "Labour have ruined what we had."

Since Tony Blair and Labour snatched power from the Conservatives 13 years ago, around one million jobs have been lost in manufacturing, the majority in the West Midlands. The earnings gap between this region and elsewhere in the country has grown.

The colloquial name for the region was taken from its heavily polluting coal plants, iron foundries and steel mills, dirty work, but the backbone of industries that provided jobs for generations of families.

Dudley's boarded up shops and hangdog air, a stark contrast to the market town's former glory, are the legacy of Britain's abandonment of manufacturing in favour of financial services.

Promise of restoration

Both the ruling Labour Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the main opposition Conservative Party are now trying to capitalise on public anger about the excesses of that sector in the wake of a grinding recession, promising to restore balance to an economy that now consumes more than it produces.

Kickstarting manufacturing, and creating more jobs in the process, is a key part of both parties' manifestos for the May 6 election, with the aim of making Britain a leading exporter in new, high-tech, greener industries.

Dudley, which Labour picked up along with several other consti-tuencies in the West Midlands when a bright-eyed Blair swept to power in 1997, is now a key potential swing seat, a fact highlighted by the competing election posters that pockmark broken windows.

Knowledge economy

The town was a victim of the belief in recent decades that Britain's future was the 'knowledge economy', rather than the production of physical goods for domestic sale and export. As money poured into the stock market and banking, the financial services industry swelled to represent two-thirds of gross domestic product.

That sped up the death of the industrial golden age in the West Midlands, a largely flat county that is one of the most heavily urbanised outside London, with just a sliver of a green belt breaking up its gray towns and network of canals built during the industrial revolution in the late 1700s. As investment declined and production shifted elsewhere, British manufacturing shrank from more than half the country's output to less than a quarter.

But that shift in favour of financial services made Britain more vulnerable than many other industrialised economies during the recent global financial crisis.

Peter Spencer, the chief economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Item Club consultancy, says the country must now rejuvenate exports to countries such as China, where it has exceptionally low market share compared with Germany and France.

"The UK's recovery is reliant on a roaring trade with tiger economies," Spencer said.

Tax break farm

With the election expected to be close, the Conservatives and Labour are promising a return to manu-facturing with a green twist, in keeping with international pledges to make Britain a low-carbon economy that produces less of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

That means tax breaks and government grants for wind farms, electric car plants and high-tech gadget factories instead of the old steel mills and coal slags.

Conservative leader David Cameron chose Birmingham, the biggest city in the West Midlands and another constituency that the party is hoping to snatch from Labour, to launch his election manifesto with promises to revive the 'industrial economy'.

"The people here have been let down. It's time for a change," Cameron said.

Brown chose BMW's Mini plant in Oxford, central England, to unveil his party's election manifesto calling for creation of 1 million new jobs. He told workers on the production line that "we are fighting for growth, we are fighting for jobs, we are fighting for apprenticeships, we are fighting for the skills of the future."

Takeover trouble

For some, however, that pledge was undermined by the takeover of Cadbury, another major West Midlands employer and maker of the nation's favourite chocolate bar, by United States food company Kraft Inc earlier this year after a months-long hostile bid.

The takeover caused such consternation that a cross-party committee of lawmakers held an inquiry, finding that Kraft acted "irresponsibly and unwisely", and unions called for the implementation of a "Cadbury law" to stop hostile bids for British companies on the grounds of national interest.

Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, who have made a late surge in the polls, have pledged to create 57,000 jobs by investing £400 million upgrading disused shipyards for the production of offshore wind turbines.

Some £40 million has already been invested in a new advanced manufacturing sector in Coventry, another West Midlands city. There has also been a resurgence in the car industry since Rover's demise, with a switch to high-end or environ-mentally friendly vehicles. Nanjing recently restarted production at Longbridge, turning out three new MG TF sports cars with a smaller work force. Last month, Nissan Motor Co, McLaren Automotive Ltd and Spyker Cars N.V. all announced plans to build new models, including a new electric car, and Ford Motor Co received a government grant to develop greener engines.

There is a hope that the traditional craftmanship of the West Midlands industries, including metallurgy, glass cutting and leatherworking, can be reinvigorated for this new vision of British manufacturing.

But analysts warn that a lack of opportunities for training could impede these grand plans.

Fear driving vote

In Dudley, job fears combine with immigration worries, many people say they'll vote Conservative to stop newcomers taking the few jobs that are left.

Craig Hyde, 32, who has been unemployed since he lost his job six years ago welding seats for stadiums - including the renowned Man-chester United football ground, is voting for the Conservatives but isn't hopeful that his situation will change.

"Look at this place," he says, gesturing to the closed-up shops and groups of young men and women dallying in the square. "I've been turned down for so many jobs, including delivering leaflets. And what do you think all these people of working age are doing here on a weekday?"