Don’t get carried away with headline fall in unemployment

Subtantial progress may not come until 2013

The drop in the latest unemployment figures is good news. It is the first time unemployment has fallen in ten months. But underneath the headline fall is bad news for women and some worrying trends that make substantial progress over the next year very unlikely.

Today’s fall in the overall jobless count masks a continuing rise in female unemployment, now higher than at any point since 1987. Since last month’s figures, there are an extra 8,000 women unemployed and 27,000 more women out of work for more than a year. In total, there are now more than a million women (1,136,000) unemployed, the highest since 1987 and a rise of 100,000 over the last year. Of those, over a quarter (29 per cent) of women (327,795) have been unemployed for more than a year.

Long term unemployment continues to rise, reaching its highest level since 1996. Overall, long term unemployment rose 26,000, the highest level since 1996, to a total of 882,821. While 1,000 men have left long-term unemployment, there are now 27,000 more women who have been out of work for more than a year. IPPR predicts there will be almost a million unemployed for more than a year by the end of 2012. There is a real risk that these people will struggle to take advantage of any upturn in the economy.

While youth unemployment has fallen by 9,000, there are still more than a million (1,033,440) young people (aged 16-24) unemployed, the second highest since comparable records began in 1992. Of those, 263,000 young people (aged 16-24) have been unemployed for more than a year. The Youth Contract has now begun, but it has a huge job to do.

Almost half a million (430,672) people over 50 are now unemployed, up 42,000 in the last year. More than 40 per cent of unemployed over fifties have been out of work for more than a year, up 13,000 over the last year to 189, 593. It’s going to be very tough indeed for over 50s out of work for more than a year to fund new jobs, even when the economy bounces back.

There has also been a rise in part-time work, which rose by 80,000 while the level of full-time employment fell by 27,000. There are now 1.4 million people working part-time because they say they cannot get longer hours.

Public sector employment contracted by 270,000 last year, while private sector employment increased by just 226,000. The resulting gap means rising unemployment. The economy is not being rebalanced by public sector job cuts because growth in the private sector continues to lag. There are actually 19,000 fewer vacancies in the economy than there were a year ago. Looking ahead, there is going to be a rise of 100,000 in unemployment this year, according to IPPR analysis of the latest forecast from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility.

This is already hitting the north of England hard. Over the last year, unemployment is up 22 per cent in the North West (an extra 57,000 out of work) and up 11 per cent in the North East (an extra 14,000 out of work). The chancellor is wasting the opportunity to boost national prosperity by ignoring the economic potential of the north.

The priority for the government must be to prevent long term unemployment, with a job guarantee, and to support women to get back to work, by prioritising childcare. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel stretches well into 2013. Before it gets substantially better, it’s going to get worse.

Boarded up shops wait for redevelopment in the Hanley Shopping Centre in Stoke-On-Trent. Credit: Getty

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.