Real wages down and unemployment stubbornly high, but could that be good news?

Unemployment's fall has stopped, but that could signal a recovery in productivity.

The ONS has released the latest labour market statistics, showing a 0.2 percentage point decline in the unemployment rate to 7.8 per cent in the last three months (2.51 million unemployed people, down by 57,000 people). The employment rate, however, was also down by 0.1 percentage points to 71.4 per cent over the same period (29.71 million employed people, up by 17,000 people).

Other headline stats show long term unemployment increasing by 15,000 to the highest level since 1996, youth unemployment decreasing by 0.2 percentage points to 20.9 per cent, and total pay increasing by 1.7 per cent, leading to a 1 per cent decrease in real wages.

As you can see from the first graph above, the quarter-on-quarter fall in unemployment is largely reversing the rise that was reported this spring. If you look at the month-on-month statistics, designated as "experimental" by the ONS due to their habit of fluctuating fairly wildly, we can see that unemployment was down by slightly over half a percentage point since April.

That's important, because it adds further support to the theory that the long-term improvement in the labour market has been replaced by stagnation. Economics reporters tend to focus on the fact that unemployment is down from a high of 8.4 per cent, even against a background of stagnant GDP. And indeed, for over a year, that decline was nearly constant. But the unemployment rate hit a low in December of last year, and since then it has been fluctuating in the high sevens.

That's bad news for Cameron and Osborne, because falling unemployment was frequently used as a fig leaf to cover the atrocious GDP growth. All the signs indicate that next week's GDP figures will be good, but they may not be good enough.

But it might paradoxically be good news for the country. The disconnect between employment and growth was due to productivity in Britain plummeting. In simple terms, a British worker doing an hour's work simply wasn't producing as much value after the recession as they were before. There's a lot of theories as to why, ranging from low morale and lazy workers to insipid investment and low demand, but regardless of why, they all point to the same conclusion: if GDP is to properly take off, productivity has to recover. The hope is that slowing decline in unemployment could be because the recovery is coming to productivity; and our catch-up growth might finally be around the corner.

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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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