UK unemployment will get worse before it gets better

Without targeted action, the UK will suffer.

Everyone knows it is tough to get a job right now. But it’s going to get worse, before it gets better. That’s the judgement of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Their latest forecast, published by George Osborne alongside the Budget, shows that unemployment will peak at 8.7 per cent and it will not fall until quarter three 2013, next September at the earliest.

The UK’s unemployment rate (8.4 per cent) is the worst for 17 years, since 1995. But the OBR’s forecast suggests that another hundred thousand more people in Britain will be without a job before the end of the summer. IPPR analysis – based on the pattern of the increase in 2011 – shows that 50,000 more men and more 50,000 women will become unemployed this year, with 100,000 public sector jobs lost and the 200,000 new jobs created in the private sector being matched by the increase in the number of people looking for work in the UK.

Young people will continue to bear the brunt of unemployment, with an extra 41,000 young people aged under 25 joining those already unemployed breaking a new record, since records began in 1992. At the other end of the age scale, an extra 7,000 people aged over 50 will become unemployed, who will find it very tough to find work again.

Overall, unemployment will not "peak" until at least September and if unemployment rises again this month, as the OBR predicts, it will be the tenth month in a row. In America, unemployment is falling and the economy growing. Last year, the US economy grew by 1.7 per cent versus 0.8 per cent in Britain. US employment grew 1.2 per cent while Britain lagged at 0.7 per cent. And US growth appears to be accelerating: it was 0.7 per cent in the final quarter of 2011 compared with a decline of 0.2 per cent for Britain.

An important reason why America is stronger is that President Obama has maintained his commitment to fiscal stimulus while the UK has focused on austerity. The biggest danger in the UK is not Greek-style default but Japanese-style stagnation. But even if the government won’t change its fiscal stance, there is something to learn from America.

The primary tool for US stimulus has been a payroll tax cut introduced in 2010 and recently extended with cross-party support through 2012. The cut reduced the rate of an employee’s contribution to social security from 6.2 to 4.2 per cent, putting $1,000 per year into families’ pockets. This has injected $92 billion a year of stimulus into the economy and US consumer spending increased by 2.2 per cent last year while it shrank by 0.8 per cent in Britain. One might think this extra spending was at the expense of debt reduction, but the reverse is true — US households have reduced debts by 11 per cent since the bubble burst as against only 5 per cent for Britain.

This combination of increasing consumption and reducing debt is the key to recovery. Businesses in Britain and around the world are sitting on record piles of cash: $2 trillion globally. But they won’t invest that cash and create jobs until they see the demand for their products and services rising. And squeezed consumers won’t create that demand until they have confidence they can spend a bit more and manage their debts.

This has been the longest recession and the slowest recovery that Britain has ever experienced. The personal tragedy of the slow economic recovery is the way unemployment will continue to rise, even once the economy begins to grow. The risk is that high unemployment becomes a permanent feature of the UK economy, as it did in the 1980s. Even within the context of the Government’s deficit reduction plan, it is short-sighted of the not to do more to get people back into jobs.

People queue outside a jobcentre at the height of the recession. Credit: Getty

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

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.