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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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