There is no longer a "jobs puzzle": Britain's labour market improvement has stagnated

Unemployment has stalled – and other statistics are even worse.

A mesofact is a piece of knowledge which changes slowly. The term was coined by Samuel Arbesman, who describes it as lying somewhere between a fact which stays the same – like the height of Everest – and a fact which is constantly in flux – like the weather. The example Arbesman gives is of the population of the world; when I was a child, I learned it was 6 billion people. When my mother was a child, it was around half that. Yet it isn't a fact which changes fast enough that we bother rechecking every time we state it; and so the truth runs away from us.

It's a similar risk to the one I brought up in April, about the risks of imprecision. It may be easier to estimate things like the cost of welfare fraud to the economy as "small" or "large"; but if you present merely qualitative values, then the ability to continuously refine them if they change in small increments is lost. It's hard enough to keep track of the fact that the world's population increased by a billion in the last ten years; it would be that much harder to work out when it went from "large" to "very large".

I am reminded of this by yesterday's unemployment figures. It seems that there is a mesofact developing, which is that unemployment is falling quickly. It's been a puzzle in British economics for a while: there is job growth, but no economic growth. Why is that?

We've given various suggestions here, raging from productivity collapse to underemployment; and today, the BBC's Stephanie Flanders offers the possibility that it's due to falling wages.

But I worry that Britain's economic commentariat are struggling to explain a fact which just is no longer the case. Take a look at the unemployment rate since February 2008:

You can clearly see the steady decline which prompted the debate. Between Nov 2011 and Nov 2012, the unemployment rate fell nearly continuously, from 8.4 per cent to 7.7 per cent. Against the background of an economy which was stagnant, and sometimes actually contracting, that was a mystery.

But for the last six months, that fall has halted. Unemployment is actually sitting at 7.8 per cent in the latest release, for the three months to April, 0.1 per cent higher than its low. There is no mystery. Our economy is weak, and so is our labour market. Unemployment is stuck at over two per cent above its pre-crisis norm. That's a disaster.

There is one important statistic where the narrative of continued, slow, improvement does shine through; that's the vacancy rate, the number of people unemployed for every vacancy:

It stands at 4.9 people, the lowest since February 2009. That's good news; but talking about the vacancy rate exposes another flaw in government thinking. Whenever the rate is substantially higher than one, discussing unemployment as a personal failing is utterly nonsensical. If every job available was filled instantly, there would still be over 2 million people unemployed.

So why even bother with policies like the Work Programme, which aim to increase the employability of people without jobs? The vacancy rate shows that the most important thing to do is increase the supply of jobs, not increase the employability of unemployed people.

Speaking to Work Programme providers, they highlight a different aim of the scheme. Rather than targeting unemployment in general, the point of skills-based training is to get people in long-term unemployment back into work – even if that means they take a job which would otherwise have gone to someone who has been unemployed for a shorter length of time.

But that's where the worst news of all in yesterday's release comes in. Because since the government began its workfare blitz, the proportion of unemployed people out of work for over a year has gone up:

If you need a reminder of how scarring long-term unemployment is, just remember this paper from April:

The first thing employers look at is how long you've been out of work, and that's the only thing they look at if it's been six months or longer.

The labour market isn't getting better. And on the most important measure of all, it's getting much, much worse.

Stephen Hester, just the latest unemployed Briton. 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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle