Thursday, 4 May 2017

You can't trust Labour on the economy (Part 2)

One of the most often repeated claims you will hear from Conservative party supporters is that you can't trust Labour on the economy. It is a message that has been repeatedly pushed by large parts of the media for many years. In fact, it has been heard so often it sometimes seems like it as is obvious as gravity, Liverpool football club struggling against smaller teams or that you can't get a decent cup of tea in a coffee bar. If you missed the first half of this blog, it might be worth visiting ( ) - although I am not guaranteeing it is worth visiting. In that I set out 3 major tests of whether an economy is working - a good economy would be one where: 
  1. any growth in the economy benefits those who work for it;
  2. it provides opportunities for everyone to participate and add to the economy whilst;
  3. providing a reasonable level of protection from external shocks to the national economy and individual shocks through changes in circumstance
I also asked how we could know if we could trust a party to deliver either of those. To be as fair as possible, I have split this down into 3 governments we can compare - that of the previous New Labour administration, that of the current coalition & Tory government, and a future potential Corbyn government.

So going back to our central question - are the Conservatives any better than New Labour at getting people to participate in the economy? And would Corbyn be any better than that? 

Looking at the immediate headline statistics this seems obvious and clear cut. We are told every month now that employment figures are at a record high, unemployment at a record low. Obviously, the Tories win this hands down. But it doesn't take much scratching of the surface to get below that and see that it is not quite as it seems. 

The headline rate is shockingly good - 74.4% employment rate. This means that 74.4% of the people who could work are either employed or self employed. This is the highest since records of this sort began. Under the last Labour government, just before the global economic crash in 2008, the best they achieved was 73.0%. 

That 74.4% equates to (between 16 and 64) 30.67 million people either working or self employed. For the New Labour government, at it's highest point, this was 29.06 million. So there are 1.6 million more people employed compared to eight and a half years ago. But just being employed is not the entire picture. What is also important is how much you are earning for that employment. Because it is this - your income - that determines how much you can participate in the economy. In that case, we are doing slightly worse. In fact, average earnings (which excludes self employed people) are down by 3%. So more people are working, but earning less than before. 

What is causing this? Well, whilst it is hard to reach a really strong conclusion, there are some really good candidates for part of the explanation.

Firstly, the national minimum wage has not increased quickly enough. This had slowed down until then Chancellor George Osborne made some moves to re-dress the imbalance he had caused. Secondly, almost the entire public sector has had pay freezes or raises limited to 1% for 7 years. The public sector workers are carrying the rest of us through austerity. Third, there are more immigrants now in the country - willing to work for much lower wages - potentially around 800,000 in that period. Finally however, and this seems to have had the biggest effect, is the rise of the zero hours contract. 

Since the last Labour government 700,000 new jobs have been created where those people have no guarantee week to week, day to day, hour to hour. The number has gone from 200,000 to 900,000. What was once a flexible way for employers and employees to work where this arrangement suited both parties has become the standard operating model for hundreds of employers. The coalition and tory government have done nothing to stop this. If you aren't on one of those contracts - just imagine what that is like. You never know if you are going to eat or pay bills - and you can't work anywhere else. It is as close to modern day slavery as most of us will ever get. 

So whilst employment has gone up far fewer people are actually able to participate in the economy in a meaningful way. We all on average have less to contribute with. And the increase in employment figures can almost entirely be matched to inwards net immigration and zero hours contracts. So whilst we had increasing spending power and jobs under the Blair / Brown governments, we have not seen this under a tory government. But what would we see under a Corbyn government?

Well, that is hard to say. If we believe the promises made as part of his election campaign, there would be increases in the minimum wage, an end to zero hours contracts, pay rises for the public sector and real genuine investment by the government in major infrastructure projects - and the aim would be to increase employment rates through this. Of course the challenge for any future Corbyn government will be how to pay for these. This ties in to managing to deliver without destroying the economy and leaving it protected from shocks - but that will be part 3 of this blog.