This week’s labour market statistics delivered a triple whammy of good news.
As David Freeman of the ONS summarised the figures:
“The number of people working grew again, with the share of the population in work now the highest on record.
“Meanwhile, the share of the workforce looking for work and unable to find it remains at its lowest for over 40 years, helped by a record number of job vacancies.
“Wage growth continues to outpace inflation, which fell back slightly in the latest month.”
In other words, the workforce are employed at record levels, their opportunities to find jobs are at record levels, and that combination of employers chasing employees is driving wages up in real terms. The jobs miracle is continuing to change people’s lives for the better.
And yet, it doesn’t seem to be having the same effect on the Government’s electoral prospects. I wondered a year and a half ago if the good news from the labour market was simply losing its electoral appeal. Since then, some of the possible factors I mulled – most crucially the lack of wage growth – have improved, but there is still no sign of rising economic indicators lifting the Government on their tide.
So what is going on?
It’s certainly the case that this Government talks far less about its economic record than its predecessor did – partially due to its different character, partially due to the all-consuming battle over Brexit. The economic ministers – Philip Hammond and Greg Clark – whom you might expect to take up the loudhailer on economic good news are often busy talking up economic risks as part of their campaign against No Deal, which is unlikely to help.
Meanwhile, the dark days of the recession, which loomed so large in the Coalition’s time, disappear ever further into the distance. In the years since, people have come to feel that this type of job market is the basic standard to expect, not a combination of records all at once. At the same time, myths – like the persistent belief that the majority of new jobs are zero-hours – have caught hold very deeply. It’s not unreasonable to look beyond the quantity of jobs and demand that quality should improve, too, but we are in a peculiar cultural position where people routinely talk as if the former doesn’t matter.
Finally, there’s a third possible answer, which is rather more grim from the Government’s point of view. What if there is a political bounce from the boom in employment, the strong supply of job vacancies. and a real terms rise in wages? What if that positive effect on millions of people’s lives has already given a boost to Conservative ratings and poll numbers?
After all, if it is peculiar that it has not materialised, perhaps the answer is simply that it is hidden from view. That would mean that the current opinion polls are the product of the jobs miracle – and rather than push the Prime Minister into a commanding lead, so dented is her reputation that even this important good news has only been sufficient to keep her neck and neck with Corbyn. Now that is a cautionary thought for anyone pondering a General Election.