This Sceptic Isle 2: Electorate Bugaboo

[First published in The Morning Star, 16/04/2011. For my previous piece on immigration and graduate unemployment, see here.]

David Cameron stoked the coals of election-month controversy this week with a brilliant tactic: a carefully crafted stump speech which seemingly blamed immigrants and beneficiaries for each others’ woes.

Yes, the quarterly unemployment rate was 7.8 percent – a drop of just 0.2% since last May, when Cameron took power with “the biggest, boldest, most comprehensive programme of getting Britain back to work any Government has ever introduced”.

And yes, there were still five people out of work for each job advertised — a figure only likely to rise as the public and voluntary sector cuts take effect.

But Cameron sidestepped the obvious explanation – that job creation has been practically nil – in favour of a neat bit of dogwhistle politics, combining fist-in-glove xenophobia with open contempt for unemployed Untouchables.

“This is not a case of ‘immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs’,” he told the party faithful.

“The fact is – except perhaps in the very short-term – there are not a fixed number of jobs in our economy.

“If one hundred migrant workers come into the country, they don’t simply displace job opportunities for a hundred British citizens.”

The real reason behind Britain’s high unemployment, he said, was that those poor and huddled masses were willing to take on jobs the locals were just too lazy to do.

“Migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work.

“That’s where the blame lies – at the door of our woeful welfare system, and the last government who comprehensively failed to reform it.”

It’s an old, albeit breathtakingly disingenuous meme – the maximum jobseeker’s allowance is £105.95 per week, less than half what someone would earn at 40 hours a week on minimum wage – but it’s just one in a towering, precarious edifice of self-serving assumptions on which Cameron’s immigration policy rests.

Take for instance the assertion that the number of jobs in an economy isn’t fixed: Cameron is technically right on this point.

The problem is it’s falling.

The Office of National Statistics’s own figures paint a very clear picture: the number of self-identified employees has shrunk in almost every quarter since the recession officially began, from roughly 27.4m in January 2009 to 26.6m today. [Ed- frustratingly their website doesn’t let you link directly to time series data, but you can look up “workforce jobs” here]

Someone who wasn’t David Cameron might then be led to conclude that there are 800,000 fewer jobs.

But suppose he’s right; suppose shiftless Britons in their thousands have walked off the job to enjoy a life of luxury courtesy of the local dole office.

Perhaps employers are simply crying out for Gavin to put down the crisps, turn off the Master Chef reruns and come fill out an application form.

It’s difficult to explain then why the number of vacancies advertised each month has also dropped pretty much constantly since the recession, with the latest data pitching it at about 70 percent of what it was in 2008. [Ed- see vacancies and unemployment]

“But hold on,” my straw-man minister might reply, “I was talking about entry-level minimum wage jobs, and those aren’t anywhere near as heavily advertised.”

Well, that’s as may be. But Cameron’s attempt to characterise unemployment as primarily a problem of unskilled labour is deeply misleading: after all the ONS in January reported that graduate unemployment had reached a fifteen-year record high, with one in five still looking for work — twice the general unemployment rate.

In the words of Cameron’s own immigration minister, Damian Green: “If they think they are going to incur the expense of a student course and then not have a job at the end of it, then that will discourage people from doing the best for themselves, which is to be as educated as possible.” [Ed- see here for my previous piece on Green’s anti-student antics.]

Presumably finishing your degree only to scrub toilets for a living wouldn’t be much of an incentive either — and yet it’s difficult to draw any other conclusion from Cameron’s moral certainty.

But then again, neither Cameron nor his staff ever really intended the speech to be internally consistent: it’s an exercise in misdirection; an attempt to present a false dichotomy of immigration versus jobs at a time when the connections between public spending and jobs, or progressive taxation and jobs, or manufacturing and jobs are growing ever clearer.

In spite of the right-wing’s attempts to muddy the waters, the relationship between immigration and the economy is pretty self-evident: people come to work in the UK – myself included –  because the currency is so strong. Getting a job here is like winning the jackpot.

The problem for all of us, national and non-national alike, is that it’s a lottery in the first place.

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