Every time I look at the arithmetic for the 2015 general election I see Ed Miliband walking into Number Ten Downing Street. It is hard to see it any other way.
After the Liberal Democrats betrayed their own principles and abandoned the idea of fair votes by approving the redistribution of electoral boundaries, David Cameron has been in a bind. Thanks to population movements, even if he polls as he did in 2010 he’s expected to lose more than 20 seats.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, he is behind in the polls as the growth of Ukip has eaten into his rank-and-file support. Even if Ukip performs modestly without winning any seats, it could still take enough votes to prevent victories Tories might normally be assured of.
There’s also likely to be a collapse of Lib Dem support which will most likely (but not entirely) go to Labour.
So when the latest employment figures were published by the Office for National Statistics this week, there must have been some high fives in Cameron’s office. For it is one thing to bang on about economic recovery being achieved – but until there are hundreds of thousands seeing the benefits it will make little impact politically. If voters are going to put up with so-called austerity economics (remember public spending is still rising, there is still a deficit every year and our national debt is still climbing – as we live beyond our means) then they need to feel the warmth when the economic sun begins to rise.
While economic growth has returned – and is expected to accelerate – the good times have not yet arrived. People do not yet feel optimistic, they still struggle to meet their bills. Miliband knows he cannot discuss economic recovery because it was achieved despite everything he said. He also knows that if his policies had been tried we would be in the same mess that now confronts France, where public finances are in a tailspin, unemployment is rising and economic growth spluttering. So he prefers to talk about the cost of living, avoiding discussion of Labour’s record and poor predictions – while suggesting he’s in touch with real people instead of living in a political bubble.
But this is only February 2014 and there are still 15 or so months to go until that general election and much could still change. The employment figures are one example of how the sun could start to shine and we begin to see the benefits of the economic reforms that we have endured.
We should recall that at the height of Labour’s debt-fuelled recession, the Gordon Brown government proposed to increase employers’ contributions on National Insurance – effectively raising the tax on employment. A more dangerous policy could not be conceived. Fortunately, it was never given the chance to happen.
No sooner had the coalition found that Post-it note left by a Labour Treasury minister that said “all the money is gone” and found it to be true it trimmed spending and raised some taxes (including the top rate of tax).
Some critics, such as economist David Blanchflower, predicted unemployment would go to five million. Labour waited, believing it to be true – but instead for every job lost in the public sector there were three new jobs in the private sector – and so the economy began its recovery.
Some say these are the wrong jobs, that too many are part-time, that the pay is too low, and so on. One can only surmise that people taking the new jobs do so because they are better than what they had previously, that they suit their circumstances better or give them an opportunity to bridge a gap until getting a better job. There’s also a great deal to be said for the dignity that comes with having a job – so berating those going into work is an especially misanthropic view.
This week we learned that between October to December last year unemployment fell by 161,000 and that employment was up by 396,000 (both figures are important but different because of new people coming into the job market). In Scotland, unemployment fell by 3000 and employment grew by 9000. Across the UK, youth employment is up, female employment is at a record high of 67.2 per cent and male employment has recovered to 77.1 per cent against 75.4 per cent two years ago. The fall of 327,600 in those receiving Jobseeker’s allowance was the largest since March 1998. At the same time, median gross weekly earnings of the 18.8 million full-time employees rose 2.8 per cent year at a time when inflation has fallen to 1.9 per cent – meaning the cost of living is slowly getting more affordable.
Cameron has a lot to do before he can expect to win the next election, and he may run out of time, but if the economy keeps making jobs at the rate it is there will be a lot more people willing to trust him than Miliband – who has repeatedly called it wrong.