The coalition's work programme is failing the unemployed

While long-term unemployment has soared, referrals to the Work Programme have halved.

Whatever explains the recent fall in unemployment, one thing became clear yesterday. It’s nothing to do with the government. New figures on the Department for Work and Pensions' troubled Work Programme revealed that JobCentre Plus is losing all confidence in the scheme as referrals to the programme have fallen off a cliff.

In July last year, nearly 100,000 people were referred on to the Work Programme: that has since halved to 49,000 in July this year. Long-term unemployment has increased by 188,000 over the same period – so if anything, more people should be being referred on to the Work Programme in each successive month. The government’s flagship back to work scheme is now in total gridlock – just when we need it the most.  Even by the DWP’s own standards, the over 25s and disabled people are being failed – referrals are well below the DWP’s most recent projections.

Disabled people’s right to work is now being systematically destroyed by the Coalition. The Work Programme’s failure is starkest for disabled people seeking work. On average, about 5,600 people claiming Employment and Support Allowance were referred on to the Work Programme. That is less than half of the DWP’s projection of 13,000 a month. After shutting 36 Remploy factories and putting over 1,000 workers out of their jobs, the government has managed to get the grand total of just 36 back into work. Disgraceful.

A hint of good news here or there, while welcome, cannot and should not disguise the bald truth that the jobs figures show a deeply divided country. Unemployment is higher than it was at the time of the election in nine out of twelve regions in the UK. Those out of jobs are increasingly shut out: a third of the total employed have been unemployed for more than a year. And those in jobs are increasingly insecure: our appalling economic situation means that employers just aren’t in a position to offer secure jobs. Just under half of the increase in employment since the election is due to an increase in part-time jobs. 1.4m people are now forced to work part-time because there are no full-time jobs available.

This tragedy has three big long term consequences for the country. First, thousands of our young people may be consigned to careers that are haphazard and poorly paid for years. As the ACEVO Commission on youth unemployment pointed out, long-term youth unemployment scars for life – through lower earnings, higher unemployment, and ill health. The Commission calculated that these scarring effects will cost the exchequer £2.9bn per year; and the economy will lose a further £6.3bn per year through lost output.

Second, Britain's productivity figures are now in awful shape. According to House of Commons Library calculations, productivity fell by 0.2 per cent in 2011 in the UK compared with the previous year, while it increased by 1.7 per cent in Germany, and 1.2 per cent in the US.  We are employing more people to produce less. If this becomes a permanent feature of the economy, it will hobble us for years by damaging our long-term growth and our export prospects.

Third, the coalition's jobs failure is making it much harder to hit the debt targets. The coalition has now trapped us in a vicious circle where their failure to create jobs and growth has led to rising welfare bills and a fall in tax revenues. The deficit is up by more than a quarter compared to the same period last year and the welfare bill has soared by a staggering £9bn. Without jobs and growth you can't get the deficit down.

Once upon a time David Cameron promised us the biggest back-to-work programme the country had ever seen. That's yet another promise that's turned to ash. And we'll be paying the price of the coalition's jobs failure for years to come.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.