The emperor's new stats release

All is not as it seems in last week's employment figures.

George Eaton mentioned it over at the Staggers, but the "record high employment" in the last set of jobs figures isn't quite as good as it appears. Most of the increase was due to either population growth, or the astonishing rise in the number of people on "government supported training and employment programmes". The Morning Star's Rory MacKinnon dug deeper into that latter rise:

The remainder are, as mentioned earlier, the aforementioned poor sods on unpaid placements, unpaid workers in family businesses and the self-employed. In fact, Mr Hoban’s claim of a drop of 50,000 Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants in the last quarter – the figure from which the unemployment rate is calculated – coincides with a combined rise in these three categories of… 50,000. Even the surge of 35,000 new self-employed entrepreneurs is hardly a sign of a booming economy – it’s due in no small part to the government’s drive to move Job Seekers Allowance claimants onto their New Enterprise Allowance for start-up businesses. Keeping a business afloat for long is a difficult feat for anyone in the current economy, let alone people with no nest egg who’ve now been told to take out business loans. We’ll see how well that particular policy works out once the scheme’s lenders start calling in their final repayments in 2015.

MacKinnon also has a nice point on the problem of using the total employment, rather than percentage in employment, as the headline figure. Click through and give it a read.

In the rush to publish on the headline figures, various statistical confusions can get rather lost in the mix. We have seen that with the "boost" in private sector employment seen from the recategorisation of further education college - which, while well publicised at the time, is now rather ignored when people talk about "one million new private sector jobs since the election" - and we are seeing the same thing again with the employment programmes.

No matter where you stand on the effectiveness or morality of such programmes, it is clear that they are not employment. An increase in the number of people taking part may (or may not) be cheering, but it is not the same as getting people back into work.

Protesters from the Boycott Workfare campaign outside an M&S on Sunday.

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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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.