More Tory disinformation on the economy

Now, Iain Duncan Smith is at it.

More misinformation from another cabinet minister at the Tory jamboree in Cardiff. Iain Duncan Smith told the conference that unemployment was less of a problem than some have suggested. "It's short-sighted to say there aren't any jobs at the moment. The fact is, there are around half a million vacancies in the economy at the moment," he said. "It's not the absence of jobs that's the problem. It's the failure to match the unemployed to the jobs there are."

OK, let's take a look at this dumb claim. It is true that there are two and a half million unemployed people and half a million vacancies; so there are five unemployed people chasing each recorded vacancy. But to put that in context, exactly two years ago, there were two million unemployed and 677,000 vacancies -- or one vacancy for every three unemployed people. So, at the very least, it is harder to find a job than it was two years ago, as there aren't enough jobs. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to work that out.

It turns out that capitalist economies need some unemployment to allow for the rebalancing away from goods that people don't want to goods that they do. That means there is an available pool of labour for these new firms to hire from. It is also efficient for an economy to allow people to move between jobs they don't like to ones that they do. That is why we subsidise search. The problem comes when unemployment durations lengthen, as they have recently. Today, a third of the unemployment durations are more than 12 months long, compared with 22 per cent two years ago. Skills deteriorate when no jobs are available, which is why recessions hurt.

A further problem is that there is a mismatch between the skills the unemployed have and those required for the vacancies. There is also the problem that the vacancies are in one place and the unemployed live elsewhere. There are jobs available as experienced brain surgeons in London but the unemployed are 22 years old, with no experience and no qualifications and live in Middlesbrough. Nearly a million of the total stock of unemployed people are under the age of 25. How exactly are they going to fill the vacancies that require experience? The only way to get a job is to have experience but the only way to get experience is to have a job.

Over the past two years, overall employment fell by 210,000 while employment of those aged between 16 and 24 fell by 351,000. In contrast, the employment of those aged between 25 and 34 increased by 171,000, while that of those who are 35 and over fell by 30,000. This doesn't look like a failure to fill available vacancies. The jobs have gone. Plus, the government is reducing funding for training, so that is going to make it harder to solve the mismatch problem. And there is a public-sector hiring freeze. Too many unemployed, chasing too few jobs.

The problem is the lack of vacancies, not the fact that the unemployed don't want to get on their bikes. It is not their fault, as much as you might like it to be. The unemployed are there involuntarily and not by choice. Sorry Iain, back to the drawing board. There just aren't enough jobs at the moment and things are going to get much worse -- and soon.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage