13 Mar 2012

Good news for Merseyside jobs – and for Michael Heseltine’s legacy

I am on the way back from Liverpool, where I attended one of the biggest gatherings of entrepreneurs in the world at an arena in an old Liverpool dock.

It came on a day of great jobs news for the region: the creation of 1,000 new jobs at the Jaguar Land Rover factory at Halewood. Under Tata’s ownership, JLR has become one of Britain’s great business success stories of the past year. Land Rover sales have bucked the terrible plummeting European market by rising 47 per cent in the EU over the past year. Jaguar registrations were up 11 per cent. Almost every other manufacturer saw declines.

So a rosy day on Merseyside on the day of the football derby. And there was another related event: today Lord Heseltine receives the freedom of the City of Liverpool. A Labour council, in a city not known for its appreciation of Mrs Thatcher’s party, is making the entrepreneur-politician a freeman.

On New Year’s Eve, documents released under the 30-year rule showed that Lord Heseltine stepped in to lobby against Mrs Thatcher’s advisers suggesting the “managed decline” or even the evacuation of Liverpool in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots in 1981. His legacy started the improbable regeneration of the Albert and Kings docks. It can even be felt in the giant Chinese-funded projects to erect matching skyscraper villages on either side of the Atlantic Gateway on the Mersey (Click here for my previous report on this).

And something rather interesting is happening. All the main political parties seem to be fighting over the Heseltine inheritance of industrial activism, epitomised by his famous promise to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner”.

Yesterday the shadow business secretary, the high-flying Chuka Umunna, gave a speech in Liverpool seeking to “pay tribute” to Lord Heseltine as he made the argument for “active government”.

Now because of the leak of his letter to the BBC we know that Vince Cable, the actual Business Secretary, pretty much thinks something rather similar.

But I have also been upbraided by senior Number 11 staffers for suggesting in conversation that Conservatives were laissez-faire small state, free marketeers. “You forget Heseltine,” I was told. Lord Heseltine played an important role in the Atlantic Gateway development that the PM and Chancellor have discussed with their Chinese counterparts.

It seems that everyone wants a piece of the Heseltine legacy, in a new world of industrial activism. It should not be forgotten that the Halewood plant, originally a Ford plant, has been routinely subsidised by government.