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.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood