Good news on jobs is Labour’s legacy

When the evidence supports it, Labour must not be ashamed to speak up about the things they got right in power.

This week’s employment statistics offered a rare piece of good news amid the economic gloom. Not for the first time they reveal a paradox of the economic crisis: the number of people in work is "too high" given our dismal GDP figures. No one can be happy with unemployment at 8 per cent, with the tragic social cost to so many families, but it could, and perhaps should, be a whole lot worse.

In the two years since the coalition came to power there has been zero GDP growth while median earnings have risen by just 1.3 per cent against an increase in RPI of 8.3 per cent. But the proportion of the population in work has actually increased - from 70.4 per cent to 71 per cent. What on earth is going on?

One explanation that has often been overlooked is the decline in "economic inactivity" - statistician’s jargon for people who are neither in a job or actively seeking work. The figures released this week show that while unemployment is a jot higher than two years ago the numbers who are inactive has fallen by around 300,000 people. In other words the supply of labour has increased which in turn has a positive influence on the number of jobs in the economy.

This continues a long-trend that began in the early-2000s and is a direct consequence of Labour’s welfare reforms. Compared to a decade ago there are almost 300,000 fewer lone parents and 200,000 disabled people claiming benefits. Unexpectedly the slow but steady improvement has continued even through the slump, due to a combination of changing eligibility requirements, improved support services and a gradual change in expectations. While the latest figures are published on the coalition’s watch, the lag between ideas and implementation means that it is the last government’s policies that must take the credit.

Remarkably, the reduction in the number of "inactive" benefit claimants in the last ten years has been so great that it has entirely cancelled out the recession-induced rise in the numbers on JobSeeker’s Allowance. As a consequence the proportion of 16 to 64 year-olds on out-of-work benefits is today lower than it was in 2002 despite economic meltdown.

Yet year-by-year the "welfare scrounger" hysteria has grown, in direct contradiction to the evidence. Perhaps this unexpected labour market triumph has gone ignored, by Left and Right, because it jars so much with received wisdom.  

For Conservatives the success makes for inconvenient reading because it undermines their arguments for savage welfare reforms. And perhaps Labour has given up trying to defend its record because it doesn’t think people are not prepared to listen or believe? When the evidence demands it, Labour must not lose the habit of shouting about the things it got right when in power.

People queue outside a Job Centre in Bristol. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.