Is IDS nervous about getting unemployed Britain back to work?

The government would prefer to blame unemployment on immigration than on their economic policies.

It is hard to see what Iain Duncan Smith will gain from his call today for employers to hire indigenous British workers over migrants. The short-term politics of it are fairly straightforward: the government would rather people blamed unemployment on immigration, which for the time being can still be portrayed as a Labour legacy, than on their own economic policies.

But commercial enterprises aren't generally minded to set their recruitment drives to spare ministers' blushes. It is their job, so they say, to hire the best people and it is government's task to run an education and training system that turns out credible candidates.

David Frost of the British Cambers of Commerce put it pretty bluntly on the Today programme this morning:

[Employers] expect young people to come forward to them who are able to read, write, communicate and have a strong work ethic, and too often that's not the case ... And there's a stream of highly able eastern European migrants who are able to take those jobs, and that's why they're taking them on.

IDS's point is essentially that the government -- through the Work Programme, which got up and running this month -- will change all of that, and businesses should take note. No doubt they will, if the Work Programme does what it is supposed to. The idea is that private sector firms will prepare unemployed people for work and get money from the DWP budget if they manage it. It is arguably the most ambitious "payment by results" system for welfare-to-work policies anywhere in the world.

But the point that IDS seems to be ignoring is that the system is explicitly designed to function as a market. Government shouldn't have to intervene to direct employers' hiring policy. The Work Programme providers only get paid if they place people in work. So if the policy is a success, there will be no need for businesses to start actively favouring indigenous Brits -- they'll have them on the books already. And if they don't, then something will have gone badly wrong with the Work Programme model. The rate at which under-educated and under-skilled British workers get back into the labour market is clearly a test of IDS's policy. He can't start blaming businesses in advance in case it doesn't work.

Of course, success in that respect depends most of all on the rate of job creation in the economy as a whole. The Office for Budget Responsibility (using models from the Treasury) forecasts the appearance of 1.3m new jobs by 2015, which are presumed to come from increased private sector investment. That assumption follows from the broader expectation that GDP growth will bounce back to just under 3 per cent over the same period.

Most economists I speak to think those forecasts are pretty optimistic. And some of the unsuccessful bidders for Work Programme contracts (and some successful ones) have told me they think the whole thing will falter because there simply won't be enough jobs out there -- and they suggest a number of providers have been naïve or lazy in their estimates of how much it actually costs to rehabilitate someone after a long period of unemployment. So the ingenious market mechanism could malfunction. Result: the DWP in dispute with private sector contractors who aren't delivering the goods, and stubborn joblessness.

It looks as if IDS is getting nervous about his ability to get unemployed Britain back to work. If he fails, it won't be the fault of immigrants or business.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.