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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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.