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.

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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.