More bad news in the latest numbers

Hours worked are down, the claimant count is up, fewer jobs are going and labour output is down.

Three more important data releases today put further nails in Osborne's economic coffin. The big news of the day was the ONS release of data on the labour market, which showed that all of the good news we had seen over earlier months this year has now gone into reverse.

First, the number of unemployed on the ILO count increased by 38,000 over the quarter to reach 2.49 million and the unemployment rate rose to 7.9 per cent.

Second, the claimant count in July 2011 was 1.56 million, up 37,100 on the previous month and up 98,600 on a year earlier.

Third, the unemployment rate for 16-to-24-year-olds was 20.2 per cent in the three months to June 2011, up 0.2 percentage points from the three months to March 2011.

There were 949,000 unemployed 16-to-24-year-olds in the three months to June 2011, up 15,000 from the three months to March 2011.

Fourth, though total employment is up on the year by 250,000, the total number of hours worked, which is a better measure of the labour input, was 910.6 million in the three months to June 2011, down 11.3 million from the three months to March 2011 and down by seven million from April-June 2010 when this government took office.

Fifth, in the three months to June 2011, 154,000 people had been made redundant, up 32,000 from the three months to March 2011 and up 4,000 from a year earlier.

Sixth, the number of job vacancies in the three months to July 2011 was down 22,000 on the three months to April 2011 and down 28,000 on a year earlier.

Seventh, regular pay growth remained benign at 2.2 per cent.

Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, commented:

Survey data indicates that unemployment is likely to continue to rise in coming months, as private-sector employers fail to make up for public-sector job cuts. The Markit/CIPS PMI survey showed companies reducing their headcounts in July due to concerns over the economic outlook and recruitment firms reported that the number of people they had placed in permanent jobs had risen at a rate only marginally higher than June's near two-year low. This tallies with official data showing that the number of job vacancies fell to the lowest in almost two years. Business confidence clearly needs to rise before employment growth will pick up again but, at the moment, the surveys suggest that companies remain worried about economic growth both at home and abroad and are generally erring towards cost-cutting rather than expansion.

None of this is good news.

Then there was the release of the Bank of England's agents' report on the economy, which suggested little evidence of growth in the economy. They reported evidence of weak growth in spending on consumer goods and services. The agents' score for growth in goods exports had fallen back somewhat from recent highs and a slowing in the pace of growth of manufacturing output, reflecting softening domestic demand.

Finally, the minutes of the August MPC meeting showed a vote of 9-0 for no change, which meant that the two inflation nutters Spencer Dale and Martin Weale had seen the error of their ways and reversed their wrongheaded votes for rate rises. Once again, my friend Adam Posen voted for more QE.

This paragraph is especially telling, suggesting the risks to the downside have increased:

The key risk to the downside remained that demand growth would not be sufficiently strong to absorb the pool of spare capacity in the economy, causing inflation to fall materially below target in the medium term. News over the month had generally reinforced the weak tone of indicators of global activity growth over the past few months, which had been particularly notable in data releases for the advanced economies. While some of the slowing would have reflected the impact of continuing disruption to global supply chains and the effects of the elevated price of oil, the committee judged it increasingly likely that the global slowdown would prove to be more prolonged than previously assumed.

Far from being vindicated, the data is giving Osborne and his failed economic strategy a deserved comeuppance. There has been zero positive news on the economic data front for some time now.

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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.