Time to examine Osborne's "500,000"

Chancellor's claim on job creation is highly misleading.

Writing on the Spectator's Coffee House blog earlier this week, the editor, Fraser Nelson, trumpeted: "George Osborne was right to boast in the Commons that Britain has the second-highest rate of net job creation in the G7." This is highly misleading.

My conclusion is that Nelson and Osborne are playing fast and loose with the truth, as the vast majority of these jobs were created before any of the coalition's economic policies took effect. Furthermore, things are likely to worsen soon, as indicated by the recent increase in both ILO unemployment and the claimant count.

Osborne did make the claim Nelson attributes to him. When parliament was recalled on 11 August, the Chancellor boasted: "Some 500,000 new private-sector jobs have been created in the past 12 months."

And Osborne repeated that claim during questions, insisting that the UK was doing better than the US. This was his answer in response to a question from Michael Meacher:

The British economy is growing and it is the assessment of the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility that it will continue to grow. The growth in the last six months has actually been stronger than in the United States, and half a million jobs have been created in the private sector in the last year.

Later, in the same debate, he repeated the claim in an answer to a question from Geoffrey Clifton-Brown:

Small businesses are, of course, the engine of job creation in our country. As I have said, 500,000 new jobs have been created in the private sector over the last year. That is the second highest rate of job creation in the G7.

Then, he repeated it yet a third time in an answer to a question by Dame Anne Begg.

It's time to examine these claims. Here is the data from the latest release from the ONS (Table 4), which reports employment in the private and public sectors:

It is clear that there has been a growth in private-sector jobs over the past year of over 500,000. The past year, however, refers to the period March 2010 to March 2011. Given the coalition didn't take office until May 2010 -- and its policies would not have taken effect until much longer after that date -- it is entirely disingenuous for the Chancellor to claim credit.

Let's be generous and take the data from June 2010. Here, the number is reduced from 520,000 to 208,000. That wipes out most of the claimed success.

Of course, it takes quite some time for the coalition's policies to feed into measured job creation; being charitable, we could measure the growth from December 2010, which means that only 100,000 private-sector jobs were created. Even less to boast about.

This raises another issue -- we are now in August, not March, so this data is way out of date. Why is that? The data come from the Labour Force Survey, which is a sample of individuals that is collected monthly. (Identical surveys are used in every EU country.) The trouble is, the sample size for the UK survey is so small -- due to underfunding and simple incompetence -- that the ONS feels unable to report monthly.

Instead, it generally pools three months of data together. The result? We find ourselves in the crazy position of comparing unemployment in April to June with unemployment in January to March. This makes analysis of underlying trends difficult, because, each month, a new month is added and another is dropped. This makes the moving average move -- but slowly. Plus, it makes little sense to report private- and public-sector jobs every three months, when it should be reported monthly.

The ONS needs to publish labour market data every month in a timely fashion, just as every other major advanced country does, and if it has to put more resources into it and move to bigger samples, so be it.

Today's data release by Eurostat of unemployment data for July for the EU27 countries plus Norway, the US and Japan illustrates the point. Of the 30 countries, data is available for July for 22 of them. Data up to June is available for a further five -- Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and Japan. The UK joins Greece and Latvia as the only countries whose latest unemployment data is from May or earlier. How dumb is that?

Data lag or no data lag, Nelson is wrong: Osborne really doesn't have much to boast about on the job-creation front. He is trying to take the credit for jobs that Alastair Darling created.

Let's wait for a few months and reconvene on this one, shall we?

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

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder