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Unpublished estimates of the impact of the biggest squeeze on public spending since the Second World War show that the government is expecting between 500,000 and 600,000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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”