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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser