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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.