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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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