The one number that explains the employment situation

5.6 people are chasing every one job. Without reducing this number, unemployment can never substanti

Perhaps the best single piece of news in the unemployment data isn't the reduction in the number of unemployed people, which, though a positive indicator, obscures a number of less positive results. It is instead the reduction in the number of unemployed people per vacancy, which now stands at 5.6, down from 5.9.

The data has also allowed the TUC to recompile their list of employment blackspots – those places where this ratio rises to unacceptable heights:

Local Authority

Region

Claimant Count

Vacancies

Ratio

West Dunbartonshire

Scotland

4,036

111

36.4

Inverclyde

Scotland

3,023

84

36.0

Lewisham

London

10,886

318

34.2

Hackney

London

10,869

461

23.6

Blaenau Gwent

Wales

3,393

150

22.6

Hartlepool

North East

4,671

214

21.8

Eilean Siar

Scotland

566

26

21.8

Lambeth

London

12,362

592

20.9

Kingston upon Hull

Yorkshire & Humber

15,431

759

20.3

Haringey

London

10,393

552

18.8

These figures should pour cold water on the government's triumph at the evidence that their work experience programme is effective at getting people back into employment. Yes, this is good news (although also, of course, the minimum that should be expected from a programme which, until recently, threatened people with loss of benefits if they did not volunteer their time). But unless the programme reduces this ratio of unemployed people to vacancies, then all it does is fill vacancies with one set of people rather than another.

When there are five people competing for every vacancy the best way to make unemployment go down is to create new jobs to fill. There are other ways to reduce the figure - for instance, the government could make seeking work so unpleasant that people stop claiming jobseekers' allowance and eventually stop looking for work altogether - but they are merely massaging the figures, rather than solving the problem. Helping people get what vacancies there when low growth means that there are no new jobs will do nothing for the unemployment figures.

It is the fundamental difference between acting on an individual level and a societal one.

A building site in Lewisham, an employment blackspot. Credit: Getty

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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.