People are trapped outside our labour market, and it's hurting our economy

The IEA's Philip Booth examines how the economy is shrinking even with a strong labour market.

Employment minister Chris Grayling might be going on holiday pretty chuffed with himself after the latest employment figures. On the other hand, a lot of other ministers have much to think about as they prepare to sun themselves.

How do we reconcile booming private sector employment with a flat economy? The obvious answer is that productivity is falling. The fact that real wages are falling suggests that this may be true. But why? There are several possible explanations, none of which are mutually exclusive.

  1. Policy uncertainty in the eurozone – and to some extent in the UK – is leading companies to sit on piles of cash instead of investing.
  2. Fewer companies at the margins of profitability are going bust because interest rates are very low and because of forbearance.
  3. The government is spending ten percentage points more of national income than ten years ago. All the evidence suggests that this will lower the growth rate by about one percentage point.
  4. A recent article in the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin suggested that it was the energy and financial sectors that have particularly sluggish productivity. One reason is declining output in the North Sea. The other reasons are entirely policy induced. It would be difficult to imagine how the government could design a "green" policy that involved reducing carbon emissions at greater cost than the current policy. If I were a "green" economist, I would be livid. The government has designed policy that leads either to less CO2 reduction for a given cost or a higher cost of a given CO2 reduction. All those solar panels really do have very little – or negative – value. In financial services, the government has chosen to impose higher capital and liquidity requirements on banks to try to reduce the risk of financial crises. This lowers the productivity of the financial sector – there will be fewer loans to businesses and individuals for a given capital base. This is a policy choice and the government could choose differently. Its policy is not irrational, but it should understand the consequences.
  5. Our appalling tax and welfare system puts in place huge marginal rates of tax and benefit withdrawal, especially for full-time workers with families. Why train, or search for another job with higher pay if an adequate one can be found quickly? Government policy has made search, promotion, training etc a waste of time.
  6. The same system has probably encouraged people to take pay cuts and thus encouraged labour hoarding in the recession. If somebody gets a £1 pay cut, most of this will be returned to the person taking the pay cut through increased benefits and reduced taxes.

Policies 4 and 6 have certain benefits in a recession. In a sense, the government is providing a generalised job subsidy to families with children. This keeps people in touch with the labour market. However, the long-term consequences could be dire.

The other thing that is deeply worrying is the level of long-term unemployment. Many people are losing touch with the labour market and staying unemployed for long periods. Our labour market is looking more like the French labour market with people trapped outside it. Nearly 500,000 people have been unemployed for over two years.

This is a tragedy and government policy may be responsible. Imagine somebody on the minimum wage of about £6 per hour whose productivity just about justifies this wage. They lose their job. Naturally, they are a little less productive in their second choice occupation. They therefore cannot get a job. Their skills then decline further – they are now even further from getting a job. They may be willing to work for a low wage (and the benefits system encourages them to do so), but it is illegal. The government then comes along and tightens maternity and paternity rights; regulates agency workers; imposes the costs of pensions auto-enrolment; increases employees’ national insurance; the list is almost endless. This all makes the worker’s productivity after costs ever-lower than the lowest wage at which it would be legal to employ the person.

I do not have figures for the UK, but in the US only a small proportion of people earning the minimum wage live in families in poverty (most are spouses working part-time, young people in families, and so on). A low wage job is a step on the ladder – nearly two-thirds of minimum wage employees move above that level within a year.

The government is determinedly removing the ladder of employment for many people with predictable results in terms of long-term unemployment.

Employment is buoyant, but poor policy choices are at least partly responsible for a labour market that, on the one hand, has many people trapped outside and, on the other, contains a large number of people who may answer the question "am I better off than five years ago?" with a strong "no" when it comes to the next election.

A French protest against unemployment. Coming to the UK soon? Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

 

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.