Jobless Britain is what should scare the coalition – not rioting students

With 2.6 people on benefits for every job vacancy, Cameron will soon see what Broken Britain looks l

David Cameron came to power promising to mend what he described as "broken Britain". But if Britain ever were to be broken, Cameron is starting to show us what it would look like. The student protests and rioting against the tripling of tuition fees have severely undermined the credibility of the Liberal Democrats, but should also concern the Conservatives.

A government that cannot control the streets of London is in trouble. But the vote was won, and the government, though perhaps not the Lib Dems, will get over it. What should really concern the government is that "jobless Britain" is already a reality before the cuts start to bite. The public backlash to that will make the student protests look like a picnic.

Several weeks ago, Office for National Statistics data showed that nationally there are already 2.6 claimants on average for every job vacancy. Taking data from more than 230 areas of Britain, they found that there are 1,359,282 unemployed claimants in Britain seeking a total of 521,729 job vacancies.

However, while historically poorer areas of Britain such as Scotland and the north-east are far above the average, Scotland having 3.9 claimants for each vacancy and the north-east 3.2, it is London that tops the list at 4.1 unemployed workers to every job vacancy. Meanwhile, Yorkshire and the Humber and Wales have 2.7 unemployed workers per vacancy. The south-east, east of England, East Midlands and south-west are below the national average.

But what is most concerning is the pattern of mass regional unemployment. For example, in four areas of Scotland – Campbeltown, Newton Stewart and Wigtown, Wick, and Gairloch and Ullapool – there are more than ten jobless people chasing each job. There are a further 14 areas, nine of which are in Scotland or Wales, where there are at least seven unemployed workers for each job.

The darling bloods of May

This situation is likely to get worse as the coalition presses ahead with its plans to sack 100,000 public-sector workers in 2011. With the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predicting an increase in unemployment of at least 1 per cent in 2011, there is a grave risk that this contagion of areas with mass unemployment levels will spread across the rest of Britain, particular in those with a high proportion of public-sector workers.

Moreover, the data reveals that, before the cuts start in earnest, there is already an unemployment crisis in Britain, at a time when there is little evidence that the private sector will be able to create jobs. Indeed, there are only five areas of Britain where there are more job vacancies than unemployment claimants – Penrith and Appleby, Harrogate and Ripon, Andover, Kendal and Rugby.

The reality is that it is the economy, not tuition fees, which will make or break this government. Nick Clegg and his party have been wounded, perhaps mortally, by their tuition fee betrayal. They are now languishing at between 5 and 10 per cent in the polls, and their first dose of punishment will probably be meted out at the local elections in May.

But now attention and the story will shift to Cameron and Osborne. Were the student protests an aberration from normality, or merely the first act in a long drama of public unrest and anger? Is David Cameron a "compassionate conservative", or one hell-bent on taking Britain back to the divided nation of strikes, mass unemployment, private affluence and public squalor that it was in the 1980s? We will soon find out.

The IMF, the OECD and the OBR have all predicted sluggish growth and higher unemployment in 2011 and 2012. If the private sector cannot fill the gap left by public-sector job cuts, then, despite his undoubted class as a politician, and his assured and self-confident start as Prime Minister, David Cameron will see what "broken Britain" really looks like. If that happens, he will find himself, like John Major 15 years ago, "in office but not in power".

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle