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Unpublished estimates of the impact of the biggest squeeze on public spending since the Second World War show that the government is expecting between 500,000 and 600,000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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle