The latest unemployment figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show a trend that should worry Conservatives: unemployment is rising fastest in affluent Conservative heartlands.
In the commuter areas near London, unemployment has historically been low, but the economic impact of Covid-19 appears to be taking a faster and more pronounced toll in these regions than in the rest of the England and Wales, as widespread changes in working affect the businesses that have previously supported commuting.
Unemployment increased by 117 per cent across the UK in the year to May, but there was significant variation to this figure at a regional level. Of the 20 constituencies to have seen the biggest increases in unemployment, 18 are represented by Conservative MPs. The average Conservative constituency has seen unemployment rise by 150 per cent, compared to 108 per cent in Labour-held areas.
Unemployment figures in Conservative areas do tend to start from a lower base – making larger percentage increases more likely. Labour constituencies in the North and Midlands do have higher rates of unemployment overall than these Conservative seats – but it is possible that new unemployment will be more visible to Conservative voters.
This is particularly true for Michael Gove’s constituency, Surrey Heath, where unemployment has risen 242 per cent, and even more so for Andrea Leadsom’s South Northamptonshire (+245 per cent) and Mark Francois’ Rayleigh and Wickford (+250 per cent).
One big reason for this trend in unemployment patterns is the shift to home-working, and the loss of market for the business that support commuting. In local authorities where at least 60 per cent of the workforce commutes in to work (defined as arriving from more than 10km away), unemployment among residents has risen by a median of 192 per cent. For areas in which less than 40 per cent of the workforce commutes in, unemployment has risen much more slowly – by 97 per cent in the year to May 2020.
It is likely that much of this new unemployment has been among younger, less well-off workers in face-to-face services occupations. For instance, in Gove’s constituency of Surrey Heath, young people accounted for 12 per cent of those in unemployment in May 2019 but 17 per cent in May 2020.
Accurate regional statistics on unemployment are slow to arrive – the DWP has to adjust them to account for new Universal Credit claims – which is why these figures only go up to May 2020. It may be that, as the epidemic has worn on and the furlough scheme has been scheduled to end, higher levels of economic stress will appear in other ares – such as those placed under local lockdowns.
But it’s possible that the political reaction is already becoming evident, with politicians of all parties becoming more eager to debate local lockdown measures and any future national lockdown being subject to a vote in parliament.