The mass unemployment Budget

The Guardian’s Treasury scoop demands a better response from the right.

Regular readers of the New Statesman will know that this magazine and its writers have long opposed the right's neo-Hooverite "austerity" measures and have worried about the prospect of a return to mass unemployment. In one of his first columns for the NS, back in September 2009, Professor David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee and one of this country's most respected labour-market economists, wrote:

If large numbers of public-sector workers, perhaps as many as a million, are made redundant and there are substantial cuts in public spending in 2010, as proposed by some in the Conservative Party, five million unemployed or more is not inconceivable.

As I've said before, I hope he's wrong. He hopes he's wrong. But this Conservative-led coalition seems intent on proving him right. Today's Guardian front-page scoop is based on leaked Treasury data obtained by the paper's economics editor, Larry Elliott, which suggests that George Osborne's austerity Budget will result in the loss of up to 1.3 million jobs across the economy over the next five years.

From the Guardian report:

Unpublished estimates of the impact of the biggest squeeze on public spending since the Second World War show that the government is expecting between 500,000 and 600,000 jobs to go in the public sector and between 600,000 and 700,000 to disappear in the private sector by 2015.

Commentators on the right, like Iain Martin and Iain Dale, have been quick to seize on the fact that, as the Guardian reports, "the Treasury is assuming that growth in the private sector will create 2.5 million jobs in the next five years to compensate for the spending squeeze". Says Dale:

Either you believe Treasury figures or you don't. If you believe the ones which say 1.3 million jobs will be lost, surely you then believe also the ones which say 2.5 million jobs will be created.

Not true, Iain! It is perfectly possible to accept that 25 per cent cuts in departmental spending across the board -- bar Health and International Development -- will inevitably lead to huge job losses (or else what do those cuts consist of? "Waste"??) without believing the speculative (and highly optimistic) figures for growth and future private-sector employment which accompany the announced cuts.

Here's how John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development -- and not a dyed-in-the-wool lefty, as far as I know! -- describes Osborne's employment forecast:

There is not a hope in hell's chance of this happening [the creation of 2.5 million new jobs]. There would have to be extraordinarily strong private-sector employment growth in a . . . much less conducive economic environment than it was during the boom.

Oh, and on a side note, don't forget that the Tories' immigration cap won't help spark a private-sector-led economic recovery, either, as business leaders, among others, have argued.

I think it is important for the left to recognise and shout about the private-sector angle to the looming crisis of unemployment. The Daily Mail and other organs of the right-wing echo chamber see all public-sector jobs as "non-jobs", as a drag on the economy, as an unwelcome consequence of the "bloated" New Labour state, and so have little interest in the fate of soon-to-be-redundant civil servants et al.

But I can assure you that they will be screaming from the rooftops if Osborne's masochistic cuts hit the private sector as hard as the public sector, as predicted by his own department. Losing up to 2,800 jobs a week from the private sector ain't going to be pretty, and right-wing voices that try to distract us with mere speculation about "future" growth need to understand this.

UPDATE: Anthony Painter has more on the delusions inside Osborne's Treasury regarding private-sector growth:

Let's take 1999-2007 -- pre-credit crunch/recession and boom time. In that time the UK private-sector economy only created 1,520,000 private-sector jobs. So what hope is there that it will create 2.5 million by 2015 in a period of slow growth, fiscal consolidation, potentially rising interest rates, and while the European economy is stagnant? Not very high would be my guess. This is a Budget that will not create jobs at the very best.

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 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.