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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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