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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.