What do the unemployment figures actually show?

There was no good news in today's figures -- and this is just the beginning.

The awful unemployment numbers today came as no surprise to those of us who have been arguing these many months that George Osborne's economic strategy is disastrous for the British economy. There was never the slightest prospect of a expansionary fiscal contraction in the depths of a once-in-a-century financial crisis.

This is all likely to get a lot worse over the next few months. Unemployment rising, the number of jobs and total hours falling and rising unemployment durations. There was no good news.

David Cameron, master of understatement, admitted at PMQs today, at which he took a batterring over the economy, that the numbers were "disappointing". Indeed, Labour today accused Cameron of "bluster, evasion and untruths" in his attempt to defend what they called his "failing economic record". Liam Byrne, Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary, said:

David Cameron's complacency today was simply breathtaking. And, under pressure to explain why unemployment is rising and the economy flatlining, he once again resorted to bluster and evasion and got his figures badly wrong.

So what did the ONS data release actually show, rather than what the Prime Minister wished they showed?

1. An increase in ILO unemployment of 80,000 on the rolling May-July quarter, going over the 2.5 million mark. The unemployment rate remains at 7.9 per cent.

2. The more timely claimant count for August increased by 20,000.

3. There was a growth of 29,000 of discouraged workers, who were out of the labour force but reported that they wanted a job

4. Employment fell by 69,000 on the quarter but was up 24,000 on the year. Workforce jobs were down 100,000 on the quarter and down 41,000 on the year.

5. Public-sector jobs fell 111,000 on the quarter and 240,000 on the year, contrary to what Cameron falsely claimed at PMQs today. Private-sector jobs were up 41,000 on the quarter and 264, 000 on the year. This is approximately half the 500,000 jobs that Osborne recently claimed had been created under his watch. It is becoming clear, as we get more data, that most of the jobs created were under Darling's watch.

These numbers are set to worsen further and as each month goes by, it will become increasingly obvious that private-sector job creation is slowing fast. Time to own these numbers, George. Your policy is failing fast.

6. Hours picked up a little, but as I suggested in an earlier blog, the decline observed over the past couple of months was not just because of bank holidays, as David Smith recently claimed on his blog. Total hours were 914.3 million on the quarter, down from 921.3 million in May-July 2010 when the coalition took office.

7. Youth unemployment rose by 78,000 on the quarter to 973,000. Especially worrying was the rise of 35,000 of 18-to-24-year-olds on the quarter who had been unemployed for 12 months or more. The number of 18-to-24-year-olds on the claimant count for at least 12 months was also up on the month. Long duration unemployment is especially bad and shamefully, the government seems to have no policy to deal with this growing problem.

8. Wage pressure remains benign. Regular pay rose by 1.7 per cent on the month so, with inflation at 4.5 per cent, driven primarily by Osborne's VAT increase, most workers are having real pay cuts.

9. Scotland was the only region that saw falling unemployment on the quarter.

This is just the start of a flood of dreadful economic news that is expected to hit us over the next couple of months. The coalition government's economic strategy is in tatters.

Ed Balls and Ed Milband are going to have a field day with Natalie Rowe's -- aka Mistress Pain -- claims of Osborne's cocaine use and his interest in her work as a dominatrix. Talk of paddles, whips, chains and handcuffs are certainly not going to do much for his credibility, which is already in tatters as the economy tanks. Osborne's sneering is going to come back to haunt him. The Labour leader today suggested at PMQs that the Chancellor had "lashed himself to the mast. Not for the first time perhaps!"

Sadly, the coalition appears to believe that unemployment is a price worth paying. I suspect that the British people will have something to say about that.

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

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide