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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Most Leave voters back free movement – you just have to explain it

The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. 

This week, a piece of YouGov polling flipped on its head a widely held belief about the public’s attitude to immigration in the context of Brexit. The headline question was:

“In negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?”

Of the respondents, 69 per cent, including 60 per cent of Leave voters, responded that they should.

The poll has been overlooked by the bulk of the press, for whom it contradicts a very basic assumption – that the end of free movement, and the implicit acceptance of the narrative that high net migration had strained services and wages, was an electoral necessity for any party wanting to enter government. In fact, the apparent consensus against free movement after Brexit owes much less to deeply-rooted public opinion, and much more to the abject failure of progressives and mainstream Remain campaigners to make the case for it.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the old maxim of political communications. And this is accurate if you inhabit a world of tight, professional politics and your job is to capture votes using already widely understood concepts and a set of soundbites. So much of conventional political strategy consists of avoiding difficult or complex subjects, like free movement. This is especially the case if the exact meaning of the words requires defining. The job of radical politics is to change the terms of the debate entirely. That almost always means explaining things.

The strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe during the EU referendum campaign was a case in point. It honed down on its key message on economic stability, and refused to engage with the migration debate. As a result, the terms of the debate were set by the right. The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. If YouGov’s polling this week is correct, a majority of the British public support free movement – you just have to explain to them what it means.

That distinction between immigration and free movement was pivotal in the referendum. Immigration is a big, amorphous concept, and an influx of people, covering far more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It makes an excellent scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide housing and public services. It has been so expertly blamed for bringing down wages that this has become received wisdom, despite almost nowhere being true. Free movement, on the other hand, can be understood more easily in terms of rights and security – not just for migrants in the UK, but for British citizens and workers.

As YouGov’s poll question explains, free movement would be a reciprocal agreement between post-Brexit Britain and the EU, enhancing UK citizens’ rights. We would get the right to live and work freely over an entire continent. Even if you might not want to exercise the right yourself, studying abroad might be something you want to preserve for your children. Even if you might not retire to France or Spain, you might well know someone who has, or wants to.

Perhaps most importantly, free movement makes British workers more secure. Migrants will come to the UK regardless of whether or not free movement agreements are in place; without the automatic right to work, many will be forced to work illegally and will become hyper-exploited. Removing migrants’ access to public funds and benefits – a policy which was in the Labour manifesto – would have a similar effect, forcing migrants to take any work they could find.

At present, Labour is in danger of falling into a similar trap to that of the main Remain campaigns in the EU referendum. Its manifesto policy was for an “economy first Brexit”, in other words, compromising on free movement but implying that it might be retained in order to get access to the single market. This fudge undeniably worked. In the longer term, though, basing your case for free movement entirely on what is good for the economy is exactly the mistake made by previous governments. Labour could grasp the nettle: argue from the left for free movement and for a raft of reforms that raise wages, build homes and make collective bargaining and trade unions stronger.

Making the case for free movement sounds like a more radical task than making the case for immigration more generally – and it is. But it is also more achievable, because continued free movement is a clear, viable policy that draws the debate away from controlling net migration and towards transforming the economy so that everyone prospers. Just as with the left’s prospects of electoral success in general, bold ideas will fare better than centrist fudges that give succour to the right’s narratives.