ConHome conference

While we’re on the subject of ConservativeHome’s spring conference, it’s worth looking back to last year’s event. There at the front of the hall, as pictured above, was a banner filled with campaign-friendly slogans. One of them was “full employment”. The reason I mention it is because George Osborne has used that slogan himself today. In his speech this morning, he said that he is “working to build an economy that supports full employment.”

It’s a decidedly economic sort of ambition, in so far as it involves getting people into jobs. But, with the election almost a year away, it also has definite political resonances. Here are three that stand out to me:

1) It plays to the Tories’ strengths. If you think that the economy recovery is picking up pace, just wait ‘til you get a load of the jobs recovery. This, as the latest OBR figures testify, has been one of the most encouraging developments of this Parliament:

Budget employment

And it’s not just quantity, but also the quality. I hope you’ll forgive me linking to the same old posts of mine that I linked to in my Budget preview, but this jobs recovery…

No wonder Osborne wants to talk about employment.

2) It reframes the picture. At this point, it’s worth noting that “full employment” doesn’t actually mean having everyone who can work in work. In truth, it kinda means whatever you want it to mean. Some take “full employment” to mean an unemployment rate of around 5 per cent. Some prefer to see it as an employment rate of 80 per cent. Some think it’s got something to do with phases of the moon and ley lines.

So what is Osborne’s definition? He spelt it out pretty plainly in his speech. “To have more people working than any of the other countries in the G7 group,” he said, “That’s my ambition.” Which means, in effect, overtaking the employment rates of Germany (73.5 per cent), Canada (72.4 per cent), Japan (72.2 per cent). We’re currently languishing in fourth place, on 71 per cent.

That, as the FT’s Chris Giles suggests, is a pretty ambitious ambition. But it will suit Osborne for two particular reasons: it’s within the direction of travel (see point 1, above), and it shifts people’s focus onto the employment statistics. It’s almost as though the Chancellor is saying to journalists: “don’t look at all those numbers Miliband is talking about; just look at this graph that’s on the up, up and up.”

3) It steals Labour’s clothing. Now’s the time to re-read Andrew Gimson’s excellent post, from last year, on the political history of “full employment”. And, as you do, you’ll notice that the concept has long been associated with Conservatives – from Churchill all the way to Thatcher.

But more recently, as I once noted in a post for Coffee House, it has become more associated with Labour. It was a favourite cause of Gordon Brown’s, who wrote a pamphlet entitled How We Can Conquer Unemployment in 1993. It took on target-hood during his time in Government. And it has been kept up by some of his followers since, including one Ed Miliband. Indeed, in 2012 we were told that:

“Ed Miliband is preparing to fight the next general election on the ambitious goal to create ‘full employment’ even though the lengthening dole queues now stand at 2.7 million.”

So Osborne, emboldened by the ever-improving employment statistics, is sweeping that particular candy from Miliband’s hand. Except his take on “full employment” isn’t so Brownite. The Chancellor’s speech included this crucial passage:

“But – as we learnt again recently – you can’t abolish boom and bust.

So attempts past and present by governments ‘guarantee’ a job to every person are doomed to fail.

There are always going to be ups and downs to the economic cycle.

And spending billions of pounds creating jobs in the public sector doesn’t work either.

Government spending gets out of control; businesses fail as their taxes get too high, work pays less as personal taxes rise, and jobs in the private sector are lost.

You end up with more people unemployed instead of less.”

Similar end, very different means. Labour’s clothing, but not their tailor.