"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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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.