Cameron will hail the jobs figures but the living standards crisis isn't over

Unemployment fell at its fastest rate since 1997 to 7.1% but average earnings rose by just 0.9% - 1.1% below inflation.

Ahead of PMQs, today's jobs figures are a gift for David Cameron. Unemployment has fallen from 7.4 per cent to 7.1 per cent, the sharpest drop since 1997 and the lowest level since the start of 2009. In the same quarter, employment rose by 280,000 (0.5 per cent), the biggest quarterly increase on record. There are still far too many people working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs (1.4 million) but the situation is better than almost anyone expected. As recently as August, when it introduced forward guidance for interest rates, the Bank of England expected unemployment to fall to 7 per cent (the trigger for the MPC to consider a rate rise) in 2016. It is now just 0.1 per cent above that level. 

The squeeze goes on 

Source: ONS

But the counterpart to the jobs boom is the wage squeeze. Average earnings are up by just 0.9 per cent (as people price themselves into work), leaving them 1.1 per cent below inflation. Those Tories who proclaimed the end of the "cost-of-living crisis" when inflation fell to the Bank's target rate of 2 per cent have been left looking predictably foolish. After five years of declining real wages, there is still no end in sight to the longest fall in living standards since 1870. So long as that remains the case, Cameron will still struggle to rebut Ed Miliband's attack lines. 

David Cameron during a visit to a Crossrail construction site underneath Tottenham Court Road in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.