Unemployment up and inflation down in the eurozone

ECB rate cuts expected

The latest unemployment figures in the Eurozone are really, really bad. In fact, they are – again – the worst they've ever been:

That's an average unemployment rate of 12.1 per cent in the eurozone (and 10.9 per cent in the wider EU). But that high rate disguises enormous disparities: unemployment in Greece is 27.2 per cent; unemployment in Spain is 26.7 per cent; but in Austria, just 4.7 per cent of people looking for work can't find it, and in Germany it's only 5.4 per cent.

At the same time, inflation in the eurozone has been plummeting. In the latest quarterly data, the all-items index is estimated to have grown by just 1.2 per cent over the year – well below the 1.6 per cent which was predicted.

That offers a ray of hope for the continent. Unlike the (claimed) British plan of fiscal restraint and monetary activism, Europe has experienced crippling austerity without any major monetary policy designed to ease the burden. Typically, that reluctance is ascribed to the stereotypical German fear of inflation. Regardless of whether or not the blame truly lies at the feet of Germany – and whether the fear of inflation is just a hangover from the harrowing experience of hyperinflation in the 1920s, or something more concrete – the ECB is an exceptionally inflation-averse central bank.

All eyes will be on the bank later this week, then, as it announces whether or not it will be cutting rates for the first time in almost a year. It's bumping against the lower bound, since the bank already pays 0 per cent on overnight deposits; but the rate it charges for overnight loaning is still at 1.5 per cent. And its headline rate, which it charges to the majority of the banking system, is still at 0.75 per cent, leaving ample room for a cut.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.