Britain’s economy is recovering faster than any other developed country. These are not the words of George Osborne but analysis from the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment is at its lowest level since 2008, small businesses are set to create nearly 2m new jobs by the end of the year and even housing starts are at their highest number for seven years (albeit from a very low base).
Yet, many people across the country are not feeling the benefits of economic recovery in their back pockets. Polling carried out by Lord Ashcroft in May and September this year found an increase in the number of people saying the economy is recovering from recession (up from 58 per cent to 62 per cent). However, the number saying they feel better off as a result was unchanged at 12 per cent. Interestingly Ukip voters were the most likely to say they thought the economy was still not recovering.
The rise of the purple rosette is of particular concern for Conservative MPs and strategists. The by-election in Clacton may well lead to their first member of parliament since Bob Spink defected from the Tories in 2008, giving the party greater credibility among the voting public. Ukip has stated that they will throw the kitchen sink at specific constituencies next year, notably coastal towns such as South Thanet, Folkestone and Skegness. Labour is also under threat with the party losing its incumbency factor in Grimsby when Austin Mitchell steps down in May. The question for the main political parties is how to prevent a repeat of the anti Westminster/anti Establishment rhetoric that characterised the SNP’s campaign in Scotland. Believe me, Nigel Farage will have been taking notes.
One of the key issues that has to be addressed is the feeling of isolation that many people in these once vibrant towns are feeling. We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Low cost air travel, a globalised workforce and the success of the UK economy has led to a surge of people from across the wold coming to these shores to seek a better life for themselves and their families. According to figures from the Office of National Statistics, net migration into the UK increased by more than 38 per cent to 243,000 in 2013-14. This leads to fears that Britain public services will be overstretched and that ‘British workers’ will be unable to compete with foreign arrivals. Immigration is cited by voters as one of their key concerns and UKIP has played on people’s fears of globalisation. Nigel Farage’s argument that Britain is losing control of its borders resonates with large swathes of people who feel they and their children do not have the skills to compete for local jobs.
Politicians do need to address the elephant in the room. However, instead of talking about limiting the number of people coming to this country (almost impossible to do while being part of the EU), the focus should be on understanding people’s legitimate concerns and addressing them through a focus on training, jobs and wages. This is especially true when it comes to vocational qualifications, an issue that Policy Exchange will be discussing on the Monday morning of Conservative party conference at an event with Skills Minister, Nicholas Boles, the Mayor’s economic adviser, Dr Gerard Lyons and the CEO of Travelodge, Peter Gowers. Attending university was seen as a panacea under the Blair government and whilst it was right to encourage people from all backgrounds to consider the academic route, the focus on university led to technical courses being seen as inferior.
It is encouraging to see this government recognise the important of vocational qualifications through the introduction of the TechBacc, something incidentally Policy Exchange called for at the start of 2013. The government needs to further encourage employers to work closely with FE colleges and Technical Colleges – as well as school leavers and the long term unemployed – to develop training programmes that provide long term career opportunities for young men and women who do not want, or are not suited, to an academic higher education. In areas of the country that feel particularly isolated by the growth of London and other major cities, sectors like tourism, catering and hospitality can provide life changing opportunities for people who don’t feel they have a stake in what the Prime Minister refers to as the ‘global race’.
The economic recovery is something that Britain should be proud of but it is critical that as many people as possible, wherever they live, are given the chance to feel the effects of an outward looking, free market economy through training, jobs and ultimately a secure future. If the Conservatives are able to show people in coastal towns that there is light at the end of the tunnel for themselves and their families, they should be rewarded at the ballot box.
Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange. Policy Exchange and Travelodge will be hosting their fringe event, ‘Unlocking the skills and growth potential of unexploited sectors in the UK economy’, at 10am on Monday 29th September in the Novotel, Birmingham.