Today brought yet more good news on the employment front – the unemployment rate down to its lowest level since 1975, and the employment rate rising to its highest level since 1971. That was driven primarily by a rise in full-time work and the numbers on zero-hours contracts fell somewhat. On wages, a 2.1 per cent rise (excluding bonuses) was slightly higher than expected, but still short of inflation, which is running at 2.6 per cent after a recent unexpected fall. Productivity slipped by 0.1 per cent.
Some – most notable Fraser Nelson – hail what has happened in the UK in recent years as “the jobs miracle”. It is certainly remarkable; despite repeated predictions (first by Labour scaremongering over austerity, then by George Osborne scaremongering over a Leave vote) that unemployment was going to soar, instead it has plunged down and down. Work – so crucial in terms of growth, social and family cohesion, well-being and mental health – is now more widespread in our society than at any point in the last 40-plus years.
That’s obviously good in itself. But politically, one wonders why this achievement is not more powerful. With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party still far too close for comfort in the polls, has the jobs miracle lost is electoral appeal?
There are a number of reasons why its effectiveness as a message might have been blunted.
People might well have got used to these conditions as a standard part of life. The crash was a decade ago, after all, and when work is widely available there might be a time limit on how long you can persuade everyone that it’s something to view as a special achievement rather than the norm.
Similarly, the serious prospect of the Opposition destroying a jobs-rich economy could have faded in the minds of some voters. It’s seven years since Labour left office (leaving, as every Labour government has, higher unemployment than they inherited) but the current Labour leadership has done a good job of simply rejecting any responsibility for the past failings of Labour leaders whom they view as impure and not ‘real’ socialists. Their entire prospectus is pitched on the basis that the real thing has never been tried, so negative effects seen in past eras and other countries are not fair comparisons. That’s false both historically and internationally, but evidently a good-sized chunk of the electorate believe it all the same.
Then there’s the undeniable fact that while the headline figures of higher employment are better than the alternative of lower employment, the full figures are not a land of milk and honey. Inflation is robbing people of real income, too many are in work but only on an uncertain and insecure basis, and the boom in self-employment, while positive overall, no doubt contains some people who are working very hard but still not prospering. At the same time, there has been a fracture between having a job and what ought to be its knock-on benefits – particularly owning a home and building up savings. In short, while more work is welcome, the fruits of work have been hobbled for many.
Finally, of course, there’s the flawed decision of some Conservatives to dial back on celebrating economic successes. Consider two examples. In the General Election campaign, the Prime Minister focused mostly on non-economic messages, and the Chancellor was under-used. At the same time, those like George Osborne, who spent six years allotting every other sentence to repeating positive jobs news, have now given up, preferring to throw rocks due to their dislike of Brexit and the Prime Minister – the Evening Standard‘s front page today reads “Brexit squeeze to last all year”, sounding more like doom-laden Ed Balls circa 2013 than its own editor.
Among these different factors, there are some the Government can do something about immediately, some it might be able to do something about in the medium term, and some it probably cannot change. It should start with the first group – particularly by reversing the recent abandonment of positive economic messages. Medium-term action, such as housebuilding and savings reform, might prove harder given the lack of a majority. But hard or not, the continuum between jobs, homes and savings must be restored.