The key role of maritime in a green post-COVID recovery

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First published in ABP's Report magazine – Winter 2020
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The Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Jim McMahon discusses the vital role played by maritime keyworkers during the global pandemic and how the industry could be at the heart of post-COVID financial recovery and decarbonisation.


The maritime sector really is the backbone of our economy. On a recent visit to the Port of Hull I saw first hand the invaluable role those that support our nation’s imports and exports play. Our country would simply not be able to function without the 100,000 plus people employed in the sector. During these tough COVID times, I want to extend my thanks for all you are doing to keep our country going.

Firstly it’s right to note that, whilst it’s true that the outlook for the maritime sector looks uncertain at present, we must remember the current Government can and should step in to support jobs and keep our vital shipping routes open. Though I don’t want to get overly political, I’m clear we have to see more action from the Government to support jobs and companies in the maritime industry.

Another area where we’ve got to see more is Brexit. This sector is going to suffer greatly from the Government’s chaotic approach to these negotiations. Our ports, our maritime industry and our country need a relationship with Europe that allows for as frictionless trade and travel as possible. I’m concerned Ministers aren’t listening to these calls and are pushing ahead with an approach that could hurt the industry. So I welcome and support those that are continuing to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on this important issue.

More broadly, when I came into this role earlier this year, I was clear our party had to focus more on transport issues that weren’t just trains and buses. Our maritime industry and ports are too fundamental to ignore. So I’m glad that after sustained pressure from the sector, trade unions and our Shadow Maritime Minister, Mike Kane, the Government has moved to extend the National Minimum Wage to seafarers. But there is more to do to improve the terms and conditions of seafarers and I’m grateful in particular for RMT’s continued pressure on this issue.

As we hopefully move forward and beyond this COVID crisis we must turn out attention to the enduring crisis facing humanity, climate change. The case for a green recovery, rooted in decarbonisation and climate justice, has never been stronger than it is now.

Revitalising the maritime sector could create tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, with many of them green and concentrated in neglected coastal communities. It could lead to the renewal of the many towns and villages with a long history of maritime economic activity dotted along the UK’s coastline. These seaside communities are in desperate need of improvements in transport, job opportunities and connectivity. They would be at the heart of maritime sector growth.

Many of these same communities derived their sense of identity and purpose from shipbuilding. Our shipyards were once the envy of the world, providing half of all new ships built worldwide. But our current global market share is now less than half a percent, and the UK’s shipyards have become symbols of industrial decline. In communities in and around Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle the disappearance of the shipbuilding industry is felt like a lost limb. It doesn’t have to be this way. Shipping has the potential to thrive once again, contributing to our economy, jobs and skills, as well as our reputation for maritime excellence around the world.

Labour is clear that it is time for the Government to act. Decarbonisation and the rebalancing of the economy are possible, and UK maritime, with its wealth of talent and expertise, has shown time and again its ability to generate enormous value. Already, the sector is worth £46.1 billion to the UK economy.

No country has yet pulled ahead in the race to develop zero emission shipping technology. But if ministers are prepared to act fast and invest, then the UK can become a scientific and green technological superpower. We can restore our neglected seaside communities and shipbuilding can become the envy of the world that it once was. But there is no time to lose.

Finally, can I again thank all those in the sector for everything they are doing during these tough times.