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.

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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.