An unemployed man walks through a street in Accrington, Lancashire. Photograph: Getty Images
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Decoding the unemployment figures exposes the truth behind the coalition’s spin

It is clear that the coalition is bad for jobs.

In August 2009 George Osborne said it would be “humiliating” if Britain’s AAA credit rating was downgraded and later that it was “absolutely essential we don’t have the downgrade that hangs over the country at the moment”. In the Commons in 2011, our part-time chancellor gloated that “our credit rating had been put on negative watch. Now, however, thanks to the policies of this coalition government, Britain has economic stability again.” Presumably the inference is that, after the Moody’s downgrading of the UK’s AAA rating on 22 February, we now have economic instability. Osborne suggested that maintaining the AAA rating was the number-one benchmark by which he should be judged, so we need to keep him to his word. It isn’t as if he wasn’t warned. And we seem to be heading for a sterling crisis, as there is growing pressure on the pound.

The only bit of apparently good news for the government came from the labour market. On 20 February, the Office for National Statistics reported that in the past quarter UK unemployment had fallen by 14,000 and employment had reached a “record” level of 29.7 million. Many took this as a vindication of the government’s economic strategy but it wasn’t. Youth unemployment was up by 11,000 and real wages fell once again. Also, the working-age population has risen, so the employment rate, calculated as a proportion of the working-age population, was below its old level spanning the entire period from 1997 through to the start of 2008.

The government’s claim that it has created a million private-sector jobs is false. Over the past two years public-sector employment has fallen 521,000 while private-sector employment has increased by just over one million, a net increase of about half a million jobs. But of the one million “new” private-sector jobs the coalition claims were “created”, a fifth were obtained by cheating, because lecturers in further education and sixth-form colleges were reclassified from the public to the private sector last spring. Fiddling the data isn’t the same as creating private-sector jobs.

It turns out that the news on the labour market isn’t very good. In fact, the unemployment rate no longer captures the full picture of spare capacity in the market, as many workers are employed but say they would like to work more hours and well over a million part-timers want to go full-time. These workers are “hours-constrained”. In part, this is related to real wages not growing, and many firms have reduced overtime and extra shift payments. The jobless rate takes no account of this “underutilisation” of the workforce.

Together with David Bell, professor of economics at the University of Stirling, I have devised a new “underemployment index”. It is based on the idea that the best possible outcome for the labour market would be one in which every worker is able to work the number of hours he or she wants. There is a host of reasons why this nirvana will not be realised, but it is a useful concept, in the sense that deviations from it could occur because some workers are unemployed, or because some workers already in a job are offered fewer hours than they would like, or both. The size of the deviation measures the real level of excess capacity in the UK labour market.

We use data on individuals from the Lab - our Force Survey that is released to researchers, and is used to calculate the number of unemployed. We then calculate the number of hours unemployed people would work if they had a job, assuming they work the number of hours that we calculate are consistent with their characteristics. We add these to the extra hours existing workers say they would like to work and we subtract the hours of those who wish to cut their hours. Finally, we calculate a rate that measures the proportion by which actual hours fall short of desired hours. The graph (below) shows both our index and the published unemployment rate for the period 2001-2012.

There are two clear messages from our index. First, underemployment consistently adds to the measured excess labour capacity in the UK labour market. Even though unemployment rates were low between 2001 and 2007, our index exceeded the unemployment rate by 36 per cent on average between 2001 and 2007 and by 38.7 per cent between 2008 and the second quarter of 2010. Those wanting to work more hours consistently exceed those who want to work fewer hours in the UK labour market.

Second, since the start of the recession, underemployment has been contributing an increasing share of overall excess labour capacity in the UK. Unemployment may not have increased much recently, but there has been a substantial rise in the number of extra hours that those already employed would like to work. Our index exceeded the unemployment rate by 42.4 per cent between the second quarter of 2010 and the third quarter of 2012, down from 44.9 per cent in the second quarter of 2012. In the last two quarters for which we have data, our measure of excess capacity is higher – at 43.8 per cent under this coalition – than it has been since our series started in 2001 or the recession began in 2008.

It might seem better to have some work rather than none and, therefore, there might be a tendency to discount short-time working as not much of a problem. But our latest research also suggests that this group is almost as unhappy as the unemployed. Furthermore, when (and if) the upturn comes, reductions in unemployment will be delayed, as it is likely that those already employed will be offered extra hours before new workers are hired.

It is clear that the coalition is bad for jobs.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman. This column is written jointly with David Bell

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain