The coalition is wrong to be complacent about unemployment

The latest fall in unemployment becomes a rise if you take out the massive drop in London.

The DWP select committee has given its verdict on the government’s much-heralded Youth Contract. And it’s not good news. The scheme compares poorly to previous projects and is in danger of missing its targets. You might not be surprised – after all there are still over a million young people out of work and long-term youth unemployment has more than trebled in the last year. You hardly need a report to tell you things aren’t going well.

So why is unemployment falling? What is going on behind the headlines? Well, closer study of the figures reveals that new employment minster Mark Hoban was perhaps a little rash to describe the state of the labour market as "very encouraging." What we are really seeing is that in great swathes of the country Britain’s jobs crisis is becoming deep set. For Britain’s women, there has been no let up – women account for 80% of the rise in long-term unemployment since the election. And our construction industry, a sector we need roaring back to life if we are to rebuild Britain, has seen nearly 120,000 jobs wiped out since the election. Whilst in eight out of twelve regions across the country , unemployment is higher than it was in May 2010.

In fact, the latest fall in unemployment becomes a rise if you take out the massive drop in London as it prepared to host the Olympic Games. Even for those in employment, the glass is emptier than you might think. Two-thirds of the increase in employment since the election is due to a rise in people becoming temporarily employed, or working part-time - now at record highs. And that rise is almost entirely down to people who would rather be in full-time work. They are being forced to take part-time jobs because no full-time jobs are available.

So how do these figures square with ministers’ claims that their flagship Work Programme is doing the job? Well the signs aren’t good – earlier this year DWP downgraded its projection for their flagship scheme by almost half. The sad truth is ministers refuse to tell us how they are getting on. The figures remain tethered behind a depressingly familiar wall of secrecy along with the truth about their Youth Contract and the blueprints for the increasingly beleaguered Universal Credit. David Cameron once told us that sunlight is the greatest disinfectant, but if something is rotting in DWP, it seems ministers aren’t ready for the cure.

The time for secrecy and excuses has long past. Britain desperately needs a change of course. We are now in the longest double-dip recession since the Second World War,  the government’s failing economic plan has pushed borrowing up by a quarter already this year and programmes to get people off benefits and into work seem to be stuck in neutral. The select committee’s report should act as a wake-up call. Thanks to research done by Acevo we know that today’s youth unemployment emergency is set to cost our country £28bn in the coming decade – that’s money we can’t afford to waste.

We now need decisive action – not more tinkering round the edges. Ministers should listen to the International Labour Organisation and urgently bring in a jobs guarantee, like Labour’s Real Jobs Guarantee. They should pay for it with a sensible tax on bankers' bonuses and create a fund that'll help us get 100,000 young people back to work.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, and sits on the International Trade select committee. He is the cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition