The truth about unemployment

It would have been much worse under the Tories.

Tory bloggers like Iain Dale have been getting very excited about today's unemployment figures, ahead of the Chancellors' debate on BBC2 this afternoon.

The figures are bad - but, as ever, some context is needed.

From a TUC press release that just popped into my inbox:

If unemployment had followed the same trend in the recent downturn as that in the 1980s recession, it would have kept rising until November 2014 and the dole queues would have been twice as long, according to a TUC analysis of the latest unemployment figures published today.

Six months after the end of the recent recession, there are 1.54 million people claiming unemployment benefit and the numbers are falling throughout the country. But six months after the 1980s recession ended, there were 2.32 million people on the dole and the claimant count was still rising.

A TUC analysis of claimant count unemployment across the UK since 1980 shows that Scotland, Northern Ireland and the East Midlands took the longest to recover from the 1980s recession.

Back in the 1980s, the number of people claiming the dole was more than twice as high at its peak as it is today in cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol, the TUC analysis shows.

Oh, and before you dismiss the TUC's analysis as leftie/Labour/trade union propaganda, here's CBI boss Richard Lambert speaking at the RSA in March:

Then there's the remarkable story of what's happened to the employment numbers in the course of this recession. Output has fallen by 6.2 per cent from the peak: unemployment is down just 1.9 per cent.

In the last recession, by contrast, GDP was down by 2.5 per cent and employment by 3.4 per cent.

The Tories, on the other hand, would have made unemployment much worse than it is now, with swingeing and immediate cuts to spending. Cameronomics has been tried in Ireland - and found wanting. Here's my NS colleague Danny Blanchlower, one of the world's leading labour-market economists, writing on the Irish experience:

In Ireland where the government has implemented Draconian public-spending cuts, unemployment now stands at 13.3 percent, up 5 percentage points on the year and rising at about 0.3 percent a month, with no peak in sight.

On Friday, the government will actually have some positive economic figures to trumpet, when the preliminary estimate of first quarter GDP growth for the UK is published. It's expected to show modest growth - 0.4 per cent? - and a further rise in manufacturing output. I'm intrigued as to how the Tories will respond. But, with the economy fragile and still reliant on public investment, I agree with Gordon Brown, the OECD, the IMF, David Blanchflower, Barack Obama, Vince Cable and the TUC - early spending cuts could plunge the UK back into recession and make unemployment much, much worse.

(The Conservative party, meanwhile, have released a new poster illustrating their depth of concern for the jobless.)




Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.