Why Osborne needs that Plan B

The worst unemployment figures since the start of the year show why the coalition needs a “Plan B”.

Just a day after the government rejected advice from the cabinet secretary, Gus O'Donnell, to prepare a "Plan B" for the economy, the worst employment figures since the start of the year are published.

The jobless total increased by 35,000 in the three months to October to 2.5 million (7.9 per cent) and long-term unemployment rose to 839,000, up by 41,000 over the three months and the worst figure since 1997. Turn to youth unemployment and the picture only gets grimmer. The number of 16-to-24-year-olds out of work increased by 28,000 to 943,000, one of the highest figures since records began in 1992 and a jobless rate of 19.8 per cent.

The $64,000 question remains this: will job creation in the private sector be sufficient to offset job losses in the public sector? It would be complacent of George Osborne to assume so. The sector that created a mere 300,000 jobs between 1993 and 1999 is now expected to create more than two million between now and 2015.

There is something dangerously arrogant about a government that rejects all talk of a "Plan B" – merely an exercise in contingency planning – on the grounds that its approach is beyond question. Vince Cable's attack on Treasury officials as "Thirties fiscal fundamentalists" suggests that not everyone in the coalition is so sanguine.

Osborne may have already declared triumphantly: "The plan is working." But he could live to regret such hubris.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.