Unemployment up, real wages way down

The squeeze is still very much in effect.

The unemployment rate has risen by 0.2 per cent quarter-on-quarter, to 7.9 per cent, leaving 2.56m unemployed people in the country. That's a small increase, against a background of continued slow improvement in unemployment, but it's unfortunate nonetheless.

The uncanny strength of the labour market was the one shining light in the otherwise continuous stretch of bad economic news the chancellor has had to announce. If this is a turnaround – or even if the steadily improving jobs figures have now started to stagnate – he would be fully in the shit. Youth unemployment is also up quarter on quarter, rising 0.6 percentage points to 21.1 per cent. There are now 979,000 unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds.

The good news here (and you can rely on the DWP to highlight it) is that much of the rise in unemployment comes from a drop in the inactivity rate – the number of working-age people not in employment. That's down to 22.2 per cent, the lowest in over 20 years. The reasons behind such a drop are always murky, but they're likely to represent a mixture of people being forced back into work through the government's welfare changes and people making the decision to go back to work due to a strengthening labour market.

But that good news is buried by the growth in pay, which, at 1 per cent year-on-year, is the lowest since records began in 2001. Compared to CPI – holding steady at 2.8 per cent – that means that real wages are getting hammered. They've been steadily declining since Autumn 2009, and are now shrinking faster than they have been in a year. The squeeze is still very much in effect.

Photograph: Getty Images

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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.