PMQs review: Miliband attacks on the economy

Cameron mounted a robust defence, but the Labour leader landed some blows over today's unemployment

Predictably, today's PMQs focused on today's dismal unemployment figures. Ed Miliband opened by referencing the 80,000 increase in people out of work, asking: "Is the British economy out of the danger zone?" David Cameron conceded that the results were "disappointing" and emphasised the government's Work Programme and Enterprise Zones.

However, Miliband had a lot of ammunition. Slamming this as "spin", he pointed out that unemployment among women and young people has risen under this government, blaming specific cuts to benefits and schemes. Later, he hammered slow private sector job growth and rising public sector unemployment, concluding: "This government is the byword for complacency". In response to these criticisms, Cameron said that there had been a rise in private sector jobs, but was unable to offer any substantive counter-argument or solution, except that cuts were necessitated by Labour's legacy.

Miliband also criticised George Osborne for failing to come up with a Plan B for the economy, going for some cheap laughs with a reference to Osborne's alleged past involvement with a call girl specialising in domination. "The Chancellor of the Exchequer has lashed himself to the mast. Not for the first time perhaps," he said, in an uncharacteristic comment which showed the Labour leader's confidence, although it lowered the tone somewhat.

Cameron gave as good as he got, implying that Britain could have been Greece had it not been for his austerity programme, and attacking Miliband's position on spending cuts: "Yesterday, he said that you can't spend your way to a new economy, is that his position today?" However, today's figures handed Miliband victory on a plate, and his continued emphasis on the government's inaction was effective. Returning to youth unemployment figures at the end of the session, Miliband pointed out that they are at their highest since the 1980s, saying: "He's just like all others -- he thinks that unemployment is a price worth paying."

This is an effective attack-line -- and a perception that Cameron will have to work against -- as joblessness mounts.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.