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Unpublished estimates of the impact of the biggest squeeze on public spending since the Second World War show that the government is expecting between 500,000 and 600,000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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.