"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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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.