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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.