Monday, 24 September 2012

We need to talk about jobs

“Jobs, jobs, jobs.” The constant rhetoric from the podium addressed to a massed throng of delegates couldn’t be clearer – we need to ‘get our country back to work’. This was the central message of both Republican and Democrat pre-Presidential Election party conventions in the United States which were held a few weeks ago. Here in the UK we’ve just begun the nearest British equivalent, with the Liberal Democrats gathered in a very wet and windswept Brighton at the start of the annual three week autumn conference season for the main political parties. The intense public relations management of these latter events has over the years seen them become more like their counterparts across the pond. Yet one thing that strikes me as different at present is the relatively low focus of attention on jobs – or rather lack of jobs – in British political discourse as compared to what we see in United States.  

Aside from youth unemployment there’s nothing to suggest that jobs will take centre stage during our conference season.  I doubt if this has anything to do with respective political cultures. Voters in both countries are used to matters like the furore over whether a Cabinet minister did or didn’t call a police officer a ‘pleb’ serving to deflect media coverage from bigger issues. But this can’t explain why the subject of jobs isn’t playing as loudly on the political agenda over here as over there.

It could of course simply be that the UK jobs market is in a healthier state than that in the United States. However, both economies have the same unemployment rate of 8.1% and both have been creating more new jobs of late. The United States did fare much worse during the recession at the end of the last decade, when its unemployment rate topped 10%, but has since experienced a sustained economic recovery combining growth in both productivity and employment. By contrast, while UK unemployment rose less sharply it is still higher today than in 2009 when the economy first emerged from recession and has stabilised during the double dip recession only because productivity continues to slump.     

This suggests to me that there is something slightly odd about the current British jobs narrative that gives rise to a rather sanguine political discourse. My hunch is that the roots of this can be found in the persistent mass unemployment of the 1980s which flowered into a series of popular myths, ranging from the belief that technology would result in ‘the end of work’ to constant misplaced references to ‘the end of the job for life.’

As a result, we Brits have such low underlying expectations about our labour market prospects that we’re delighted that the worst recession since the Great Depression hasn’t had an even worse impact on jobs. But the unfortunate downside of this is a tendency for our current jobs situation to be portrayed as a relatively good news story rather than the very bad news story that in reality it is. This helps the Coalition to deflect attention from the broader state of the economy and makes it harder for the opposition to highlight the severity of joblessness. An 8.1% unemployment rate should be considered as big an economic and social failure in the UK as it is in the United States. And our politics should reflect this too.    

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