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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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

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