The thoroughly reactionary but entertaining Jeremy Clarkson, on his Top Gear programme’s Christmas special, tried to demonstrate that UK vehicle manufacturing was healthier than ever. In contrast, Idris Elba, actor in the Wire and Luther, went to Detroit to be taken around the waste land that is the American car industry.
Elba, in his Speed programme on BBC1, was a ‘petrol head’ like Clarkson, but at least he was interested in what had happened to the car workers. Elba had worked at the Ford Dagenham factory as a youth. His dad was a shop steward there for 25 years.
Clarkson boasted about the wide variety of vehicles being made today in the UK, filling up the Mall in London with them. But many of the cars on display were luxury brands such as Rolls Royces and Bentleys. These cars are far beyond the reach of working people and create relatively few jobs.
Clarkson tried to demonstrate as well that more cars were produced in Britain than ever before, claiming that the Nissan factory in Sunderland “made more cars than the whole of the Italian car industry”.
But the cars made in Britain today are mainly made up of components shipped in from abroad. This is true in other countries, but it has gone much further in Britain than elsewhere.
Household supplier names that made up the British car industry have long disappeared. They employed tens of thousands of workers which were overwhelmingly unionised in the past. It is true that the vehicle industry employs over 700,000 workers, but these are mostly in the retail/service side of the industry and are generally not unionised and low paid.
The UK auto industry now directly employs 180,000 workers but compare that to the 775,000 in Germany and 220,000 in France (169,000 are directly employed in Italy).
All the main car factories are foreign owned, limiting possible political influence even if it was forthcoming from the Labour Party (which it isn’t).
Nissan in Sunderland, Toyota in Derbyshire and Honda in Swindon are Japanese owned. The Mini production line in Cowley, Oxford is owned by German manufacturers BMW. Jaguar Land Rover in Solihull, Birmingham and Merseyside is owned by Tata, the Indian conglomerate, and Vauxhall Luton and Merseyside is owned by GM of America.
When the Japanese manufacturers moved into Britain in the 1980s they made sure that all likely trade union activists where weeded out before they got anywhere near the shop floor. A massive questionnaire was given to all job applicants, drawn up by anti-union management consultants.
It is not impossible to organise from below in these factories as National Shop Steward’s Network supporters have shown, but it is a long process.
There was extreme management control of the production process, which generally meant that it was younger workers who could last the pace.
Clarkson has exaggerated in his comparison of Sunderland Nissan and Italy, especially as Italian car maker Fiat has just bought up the 41% of US ‘big four’ auto firm Chrysler that it didn’t already own.
Sixteen million cars were made in Europe in 2007 before the world economic crash. But in 2014, production is still expected to be at least 20% lower due to the impact of the banking crisis. Motor manufacturers have moved much of their production from Europe to East Asia.
Clarkson’s programme put a false gloss on British manufacturing; looking through rose tinted glasses for the future of British capitalism. But the main campaign of all international capitalist car producers is to play off workers of one country against another in a race to the bottom for pay and conditions.
Jeremy Clarkson’s programme was part of that reactionary campaign.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has boasted that UK new car sales for 2013 were the highest since 2007, with 2.26 million vehicles registered.
However, around 74.5% of new cars are being bought on credit, which audit firms have called “unsustainable”.
Credit deals often mean drivers never really own a vehicle, but rent it before being offered to exchange it for another new car.
Car figures have also been boosted by people spending PPI compensation money and record high pre-registrations, where cars are registered to a non-existent buyer in order to then sell them at a lower ‘used’ cost.