The birth of a zombie statistic

"Record numbers of people in work" is a meaningless fact.

The Daily Telegraph's Jeff Randall has a triumphalist opinion piece today, proclaiming that, contrary to the claims of "Armageddonistas" (who apparently count amongst their numbers our own David Blanchflower):

The British economy’s most recent data show that we’ve just experienced the fastest quarterly growth in five years, employment is going up, unemployment is coming down, public-sector borrowing is falling; pay in both the public and private sectors is rising, inflation is fading (though still above target), retail sales are positive, as are new car registrations.

Many of the counter-arguments to Randall are a question of framing, and some of the straw men he attacks aren't worth defending.

So while we've experienced the fastest quarterly growth in five years, we've also experienced annual growth of exactly zero per cent; and the ONS explicitly stated in the press conference accompanying the figures that the quarterly fluctuations mean that looking at the longer-term is more accurate.

Similarly, pay in the public and private sector is indeed rising, as it has been for three years. But real pay – pay deflated by inflation – has been negative for years. August, the latest month data for which data is available, saw a 2.3 per cent rise in wages for the whole economy, and a CPI rate of 2.5 per cent. So while the average worker had more pounds in their payslip, they still got 0.2 per cent poorer. And even that nominal pay increase was a high point – in the last year, nominal weekly earnings have risen by above 2 per cent just three times.

(I also can't let it pass that in the same piece in which Randall attacks Blanchflower for "abusing those who challenge his view that fear of inflation is overblown", he also argues that the Armageddonistas are wrong because "inflation is fading".)

Beneath the bluster and legitimate disagreements in which to focus on – for it is just a disagreement as to whether to look at this quarter or this year, or whether falling unemployment is enough to offset falling real wages – is one very concerning use of an outright misleading statistic.

We hoped it would be confined to Prime Minister's Questions and the DWP's perennially dodgy press releases, but Randall's repetition of the "record" 29.59 million in work means that this bears spelling out: the only record is how many people there are in the UK.

Population is at since 1960. This employment statistic has only been counted since 1971. If you look at the employment rate, which is 71.3 per cent, then it is at a high since just 2009. Which isn't much of a record at all.

Of course, it may be that Randall is – against the grain for the Telegraph – cheering the economic benefits of well-managed migration into the UK, which has allowed the economy to grow far larger than it would have with closed borders, and is decrying the "lump of labour" fallacy so commonly applied by his fellow columnists.

That may be the case. Probably not, though.

The statue on the top of the Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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