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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.