Unemployment is down, but so are real wages

Mixed news in the ONS release.

Unemployment is down to 7.8 per cent from 7.9 per cent three months ago, according to the ONS:

Unemployment rate (aged 16+), seasonally adjusted

  • The employment rate for those aged from 16 to 64 for October to December 2012 was 71.5%, up 0.3 percentage points from July to September 2012. There were 29.73 million people in employment aged 16 and over, up 154,000 from July to September 2012.
  • The unemployment rate for October to December 2012 was 7.8% of the economically active population, down 0.1 percentage points from July to September 2012. There were 2.50 million unemployed people, down 14,000 from July to September 2012.
  • The inactivity rate for those aged from 16 to 64 for October to December 2012 was 22.3%, down 0.2 percentage points from July to September 2012. There were 8.98 million economically inactive people aged from 16 to 64, down 94,000 from July to September 2012.
  • Between October to December 2011 and October to December 2012, total pay (including bonuses) rose by 1.4% and regular pay (excluding bonuses) rose by 1.3%.

The rise in total employment takes it to a new record high, for the 140th time. It shouldn't be taken too seriously, because most of the increase is simple population growth, but you can be certain that that is a statistic which will be rolled out again soon.

Similarly, the release shows a further 65,000 private sector jobs in June 2012, meaning that you will continue to hear the soundbite "one million private sector jobs since the election". That too is not strictly true; as George points out, that million includes 196,000 jobs "reclassified" from the public sector. Take those out, and we still aren't at a million new jobs, even with the latest increase.

The earnings rise, of 1.4 per cent between October and December 2011 and the same period in 2012, is lower than it had been year-on-year last month, and remains stubbornly below inflation. The ONS confirms that "prices therefore increased by more than earnings", as they have done consistently since the recession. The gap is growing, too, as inflation looks likely to stay around 3 per cent despite falling wages.

One unambiguously good datapoint is that the trend to underemployment seems to be reversing. With 167,000 new full time jobs, the number of people working part time who don't want to be is falling, although the number of people working temporarily who don't want to rose by another percentage point on the quarter.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.