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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.