Chart of the day: US unemployment down, UK not so hot

Although the employment data for the US was weaker than hoped, it was still better than the UK.

The lastest US employment figures were released on Good Friday. They showed that there were 12.67 million unemployed people in March 2012 making the unemployment rate 8.2 per cent.

In March, the non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rates in the country for adult men was 7.6 per cent, adult women 7.4 per cent, teenagers 25 per cent, whites 7.3 per cent, blacks 14 per cent, and Hispanics 10.3 per cent. The jobless rate for Asians was 6.2 per cent.

The number of long-term unemployed – those jobless for 27 weeks and over, who account for 42.5 per cent of the unemployed – was 5.3 million in March, compared to 5.42 million previous month.

The number of people employed part time for economic reasons fell from 8.1 to 7.7 million over the month, contrasting with the UK where underemployment is rising.

The US employment figures are put together by a survey of about 60,000 households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This survey thus includes agricultural workers, the self-employed, unpaid family workers, and private household workers among the employed.

A second survey asks employers what their actions have been. Although it misses many of these groups, the sample size is much larger. This establishment survey data enables us to break down much more information by sector.

Private-sector employment grew by 121,000 in March, while government employment was essentially unchanged. Employment in manufacturing, food services and drinking places, and health care sectors increased. Retail trade lost jobs over the month.

The average workweek for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls edged down by 0.1 hour to 34.5 hours in March. The manufacturing workweek fell by 0.3 hour to 40.7 hours, and factory overtime was unchanged at 3.4 hours.

The average workweek for production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls was unchanged at 33.8 hours.

In March, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 5 cents, or 0.2 percent, to $23.39.

Although the US figures were weaker than hoped, they were still stronger than the UK, where we may be settling in to a long, hard slog.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation