Local solutions are the key to full employment

Labour is learning from countries where local services are trusted to match job seekers with vacancies.

In the pages of this week’s New Statesman the ever excellent Ian Mulheirn takes a look at this government’s employment policy. Needless to say it’s not a roaring success.

For proof, you need look no further than Wednesday’s unemployment figures. For the second month in a row, the number of people actually in work fell; that means our economy has quite simply stopped created jobs and is starting to lose them. Unemployment rose. Long term unemployment rose – and we now live in a country where one in five people out of work has been on the dole for more than two years. Yet in spite of the obvious need Ministers continue to resist Labour’s calls for a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee to end the prospect of a life on the dole.

Instead Iain Duncan Smith presses on with a Work Programme that doesn’t work, leaving more and more people getting further and further away from the labour market. And what’s more he has failed the very test he set himself his during fleeting reinvention as a compassionate conservative.

Back in Easterhouse the future Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told the world that, “A nation that leaves its vulnerable behind, diminishes its own future.” But after three years of power he isn’t bringing unemployment down on Britain’s poorest communities, he’s watching it rise.

Today, three quarters of the British estates most blighted by unemployed have seen worklessness rise since May 2010, and in two thirds long term unemployment has continued to spiral out of control.

Yet for all the promises they made in Opposition, this government has done nothing to re-skill the unemployed for the jobs that do exist. And the truth is skills are more important than ever – in today’s global market place, low skilled British workers are competing with workers paid twelve times less. The result is more than half of those without a skill are out of work, and the number is rising.

More and more of our low-skilled or no-skilled workers now live in Britain’s poorest communities. In fact, some of Britain’s poorest communities are home to five times more unskilled workers than Britain’s richest communities, and the truth is Ministers are allowing them to fall further and further behind.

The answer to the problem of poor places - as I argued in my speech to IPPR North last night – can be found in countries that are localising back to work services so workers can be better connected with local jobs, saving the state a fortune in benefit payments along the way. In times as tough as these we certainly shouldn’t be afraid to borrow the best ideas from our friends and neighbours.

In Germany, their more localised approach has contributed to saving billions of euros in welfare payments by driving up the employment rate. Local jobcentres work closely with surrounding schools and have deep roots in the local labour market which allows them to engage with employers far beyond the traditional low skill, low pay sectors.

Whilst in Canada, localised delivery of back to work programmes give local government the flexibility to establish their own priorities and to develop programmes to achieve them. Provinces and territories control how the funding is allocated in order to meet the needs of their particular labour markets, which in turn gives them the opportunity to apply local expertise to skills development, allocating targeted wage subsidies, and creating Job Creation Partnerships, to help provide useful work experience that leads to sustained employment

But it’s not just on foreign shores that decision makers are changing things on the ground with a more localised approach. Here in the UK, Labour authorities are already leading the way. Places like Glasgow, Wales, Newham and Liverpool are seeing Labour leaders innovate in a way that DWP officials in Whitehall cannot, by using local expertise to tackle unemployment head on. That’s how we start on the path back to full employment – and that’s how we rebuild Britain.

For Labour, that goal of full employment has always been the foundation for getting our country back on its feet. It was for Atlee’s Labour. It was for New Labour. It will be once more for One Nation Labour. Today the goal of full employment is important for a very simple reason. The faster we return to full employment, the faster we can pay down our debt. And the faster we can put the “something for something” back in to social security.

The Tories’ problem isn’t just that they are failing, but that they lost a belief in full employment many years ago, and never rediscovered it. That means more money spent on unemployment, so there is less to go around for working people and less for care.

After three years of failure we’ve got to find new ways to break out of this viscous circle. Seventy years ago, we set out a new path to full employment. Just as the Beveridge Report is a still a good roadmap for today, so too is the 1944 White Paper on Full Employment. It teaches us to be radical reformers to bring down the costs of social security; building exports; supporting public investment; fanning consumer demand – and taking determined action on jobs. It is a long road, but tackling poor places would be a big first step to getting our country back to full employment.

Next year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the white paper on full employment. We should mark that anniversary not with empty words but with big plans. Plans to rebuild the path to full employment for new times. Plans which could help us modernise our social security system, rebuild trust, and crucially put its finances back on an even keel for the future.

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 are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.