I still think the Conservative Party’s surprisingly good poll rating is artificially bolstered by Jeremy Corbyn’s underperformance, but there are other factors that underpin it, too. One, which we should never forget, is the continuing “Great British success story” (as Esther McVey put it) of rising employment and falling unemployment.
In the latest figures, the employment rate continued at a record high, including new record levels of employment among women and ethnic minority workers. Unemployment fell by a further 38,000 in the quarter, with the unemployment rate at its lowest since 1975. Among other notable achievements, the unemployment rate in the North East of England has now fallen below that in London and the West Midlands.
Despite all the years in which people confidently predicted that the private sector could never replace the jobs shed by a more efficient state, we now know that the private sector workforce has grown by an astonishing 3.7 million people since 2010.
In part, that’s testimony to the benefits of various economic policies – not least reductions in Corporation Tax. However, we should resist the temptation to seek to grab for politicians all the credit of what is at heart an achievement of individuals and businesses themselves. This is a reminder of the versatility and energy of the British people when they are free to work and innovate. Conservatives should praise, protect and promote those qualities – not try to play the statist game of ignoring them in favour of the pretence that politicians create growth and wealth.
That success surely plays a major part in the continued strength of Tory polling figures. Either people think the Government has played a positive part in the trend, or they reap the benefits of the general feel-good (or at least feel-better) effect of more people having jobs, or it is yet another thing many do not want to risk by allowing a hard left Labour Party into power. Or, more likely, some mix of the three.
There are still significant problems, however – problems which I suspect limit the power of this otherwise remarkable achievement.
Zero hours contracts are often overstated and misrepresented, but they have a hold in many people’s minds as a reason to be sceptical of employment statistics. Whether that perception is precisely accurate or not doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it exists and has some power. Anyone talking about positive job numbers can reliably expect the answer “sure, but how many are on zero hours contracts?” to be thrown back at them in short order. Wider concerns about job insecurity feed into that, too.
Then there’s pay. Rises might have outstripped inflation for three consecutive months now, but they haven’t reached everybody, and that progress comes after a long period of pay erosion. More jobs is better than fewer jobs, but the benefits of higher employment are obviously blunted if those in work are in effect getting paid less.
Finally, of course, work is not the be all and end all, and nor should it be. People want a job, but they also want a good job, and a good life – a chance of owning a home, the potential to build savings, the freedom to enjoy the fruits of their labour, good schools for their children, opportunities for them and theirs, protection from crime and so on. We can all think of issues that impinge on those desires, like the ongoing rail chaos in some parts of the country, the rise in violent crime and the under-supply of housing. All the more reason not just to resolve those issues, but to make it the Conservative Party’s mission to offer more joy in people’s lives, too.