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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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.