Unemployment down, but where's the growth?

More people are in work, but things aren't necessarily better

Some more good news from the labour market figures this month. Unemployment was down 0.2 per cent or 51,000 people quarter on quarter, while employment was up 0.3 per cent or 133,000. The fabled "rebalancing" appears to finally be upon us, with public sector employment shrinking by 39,000 but amply being made up for by an increase of 205,000 in the private sector.

Even some of the nasties that have been present in the last two month's data are gone now. The number of people working full-time finally rose by 82,000, matching a continued increase in the number of people working part-time (up 83,000). Similarly, the number of people temping against their will fell slightly, with 5,000 fewer people working temporary jobs because they couldn't find permanent work.

Underemployment is still growing overall, though. Another 25,000 people are now working part-time because they can't find full-time work. But overall, the labour figures are surprisingly positive.

I say surprisingly, because they certainly seem to conflict with the reports from the wider economy. We have had two straight quarters of negative growth, and are widely expected to be in the midst of a third (the pre-spinning began even before the quarter did, with the Jubilee Weekend being blamed). So how can we have a strong labour market?

Some commentators are using the unemployment data to cast doubt on the GDP data, but that is largely clutching at straws. It's long been known that the two can diverge quite seriously – witness, for example, the American situtation, where the unemployment rate has fallen by almost 2 per cent since November 2009 with growth which (while good in comparison to the UK) is less than the fall would suggest – and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we are experiencing a growthless recovery.

The simplest way for the two to head in seperate directions is a fall in labour productivity. This is the measure, basically, of how much is made in one hour of work by one person; although it does count literally how hard people work, it is affected far more by technology and workplace innovations. The last data release, for the fourth quarter of 2011, showed productivity falling by 0.7 per cent, and it would be unsurprising if we saw further falls for the first and second quarters of 2012.

The economic story for falling productivity in a recession is simple and relatively intuitive. When times are hard, employers are less likely to spend money on training, tools, repairs to machinery, and so on; all the sort of things which let an employee work harder and smarter. This is compounded by the fact that labour is relatively sticky; while a business doing well will spend on hiring and productivity improvements, a business doing badly is far less likely to fire their employees than they are to cut back on productivity-boosting spending. Simply put, recessions lead to drops in productivity (source):

So it is absolutely possible to be in the situation we are now, with falling unemployment and a contracting economy. It's just not entirely pleasant.

Chris Grayling, Minister for Work and Pensions, and Chris Grayling, Minister for Work and Pension. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.