"Jobs must be our number one focus"

Barack Obama's words ring true in the UK, too, as 2,250 fresh job losses are announced.

Employment -- or, more accurately, the lack of it -- was at the forefront of the international news agenda today when Barack Obama focused on joblessness in his first State of the Union address. As he said:

People are out of work. They are hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay. Jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.

The words ring true on this side of the Atlantic, too. Perhaps less widely reported than the Obama speech were two bleak pieces of news for British workers.

Shop Direct, a home shopping group, said that it is to close three call centres in Sunderland, Burnley and Newtown in Powys, at a cost of 1,500 jobs. Toyota also announced that it will axe up to 750 jobs from its main UK factory, the Burnaston plant near Derby. These are large-scale losses in communities where jobs were already in scarce supply.

And the picture for those communities particularly hard hit by the recession looks set to darken further. A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research explains:

It appears that those areas where there has been the largest increase in unemployment have above-average reliance on employment in manufacturing, in particular in those low value-added manufacturing industries that are most vulnerable to competition from low-cost companies in emerging economies elsewhere in the world. Unemployment was already high in these areas because companies were closing and cutting costs as a result of this competition. The recession has accelerated the process.

Other analysis shows that housing-led regeneration efforts in northern city-regions have been adversely affected by the recession and that some city-regions are likely to be badly hit when the government starts to cut public spending. For deprived communities in the northern city-regions, this could, therefore, represent a "triple whammy".

Figures earlier this week showed that the economy has returned to growth (just), and last week that unemployment did not rise as much as predicted (largely because more people are working part-time).

Amid these tentative signs of recovery, today's announcements were further evidence that the reverberations of the recession will continue to be felt for many months to come. Short-term help for these communities is vital, but even more important is long-term regeneration to fill the gaping hole left by the decline of UK manufacturing.

Both of the main political parties would do well to follow Obama's lead and place jobs at the centre of the agenda.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.