Don't be fooled by the employment increase

Total unemployment is the highest since 1994 -- under-25s and northerners are bearing the brunt.

No amount of spin can get around the fact that there was bad news yesterday from the Office for National Statistics on the labour market. This was not much of a surprise given that the data from several qualitative surveys has been less than stellar over the past few weeks. The KPMG/Rec Report on Jobs also showed that permanent placements fell for a third month running in December, while temporary billings were also down for the first time in 29 months. The British Chamber of Commerce's Quarterly Survey for Q4 2011 suggested that firms were once again shaking out workers.

Firms reported in the survey over the least few months had employment falling at a faster pace than previously in both manufacturing and services. Expectations for employment over the next few months fell in both sectors, and precipitously so in manufacturing.

The big news was the largely unexpected increase in the unemployment rate; up 0.3 per cent on the quarter and up 0.1 per cent on the month to 8.4 per cent -- the highest it has been since the end of 1996. The total number of unemployed now stands at 2,658,000; the highest it has been since the autumn of 1994. The number of unemployed looks set to hit the three million mark this year, as the economy heads back into recession.

In other news, employment on the quarter was up 18,000 but -- as can be seen from the table -- this was driven entirely by older folks aged 65 and over. The burden of rising unemployment and declinign employment is falling disproportionately on people under age 50.

 

The numbers of youngsters under age 25 who are unemployed now stands at 1,043,000 -- giving an appalling unemployment rate of 22.3 per cent. Forty four per cent of the increase in unemployment on the quarter was accounted for by youngsters.

Some coalition supporters tried to wriggle their way out of this bad news. On his blog, David Smith continued his theme that there isn't really a youth unemployment problem, arguing that:

The rise in youth unemployment looks to be mainly a full-time student phenomenon.

Excluding them, there was an increase of just 8,000 over the latsst (sic) three months. Including them, there was a rise of 52,000.

The numbers on the quarter are below. As in every country in the EU, the youth employment count includes full-time students in part-time jobs, while the youth unemployment count includes full-time students and unemployed searching for part-time jobs.

 

Smith conveniently failed to point out that the increase in employment among those in full-time education entirely explains the overall increase in employment but doesn't exclude them from the overall count. The decline in youth jobs is driven entirely by those who are not full-time students.

Excluding full-time students, there was an decline of just 48,000 over the latest three months. Including them, there was a decline of 28,000.

Sorry, good try David, but you can't have it both ways. Fiddling the figures doesn't work.

Other bad news on the labour market was that:

  1. The number of full-time jobs was down 57,000 on the quarter
  2. There are 590,000 people who have temporary jobs because they can't find permanent jobs
  3. There are a further 1.3 million who have a part-time job because they can't get a full time job
  4. Earnings rose by 2.1 per cent on the quarter and the month, so despite the drop in the CPI this month, workers are still receiving real wage cuts.
  5. Unemployment rates are now in double digits in the North East (12.0 per cent) and Yorkshire and the Humber (10.0 per cent).

In response to all this, Employment Minister Chris Grayling said yesterday:

The overall level of unemployment is, and will remain, a major concern for the government. The latest figures reflect the current challenging economic climate . . . Despite the exceptionally difficult economic circumstances, finding work for the unemployed will remain top of the government's agenda.

Top of the agenda? Doesn't exactly look that way does it, as unemployment heads inexorably upwards? I dread to think what is happening to policies further down the government's agenda!

It remains clear that the government is not finding work for the unemployed. Maybe it's time for a trip to the North East, Chris, to see how well your strategy isn't working?

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

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.