It was all about the economy this week, the poor news on which casts a shadow over conference season, which starts tomorrow, writes Shamik Das.
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• It was all about the economy this week, the poor news on which casts a shadow over conference season, which starts tomorrow.
For George Osborne, the cold, hard reality the UK economy isn’t growing as planned finally appears to have hit home, the eurozone crisis, riots, disappearing confidence and gloom upon gloom – culminating in the abysmal jobs figures (more on which below) – all combining to rob the chancellor of his unshakeable swagger.
Far from looking ahead to the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and going to the country three years later with a record they could easily defend, Osborne, Cameron and co seem to have conceded a “new phase” is shaping up, with the chancellor’s “grand political plan” (two years of pain, three years of recovery) looking ever more in doubt.
Whether Labour can exploit these conditions, and convince the public to once more trust them on the economy, however, remains to be seen; as I said earlier today:
“…for Labour, whose conference nine days’ hence falls between the two governing parties’, the key will be to further flesh out a credible Plan B, as Matt Pitt explained on these pages yesterday.
“Balls [as evidenced by his Newsnight performance], may well be cock of the walk, but the Alistair Darling revelations will have reaffirmed in voters’ minds their doubts about Labour on the economy (as evidenced by this week’s poor Times/Populs poll ratings) – doubts Ed Miliband must quell in his key note speech.”
The key question remains: the government’s economic policies may not yet have worked – but are the public ready to re-trust Labour?
• This week’s labour market stats were dire, for young people, for women, for the long term unemployed, for pretty much everyone.
On Left Foot Forward on Wednesday, our experts delved deeper into the figures, picking out the key points for us.
On the grim figures on women’s employment, James Plunkett wrote:
“The number of people working part-time because they can’t find full-time work is up 70,000 quarter-on-quarter to 1.28 million, the highest figure since records began in 1992; the number of unemployed women is up 41,000 to 1.06m, the highest figure since April 1988; the number of women claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance is up 8,100 to 519,200, the highest figure since January 1996.”
On the glimmer of good news, the picture in Scotland, Ed Jacobs wrote:
“There is just one area of the country that registered a fall in unemployment…
“Unemployment in Scotland fell 0.2% compared with a UK wide increase of 0.3%. This takes unemployment in Scotland to 7.5%, compared with a UK rate of 7.9%. Furthermore, the number of people described as economically active increased by 20,000 over the same period, even though the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance was 145,700 in August – an increase of 1,200 over the month.
“Whilst the Scottish secretary, Michael Moore attempted to take the credit for the UK government’s policy decisions which he claimed were creating jobs, increasing unemployment across the rest of the UK is a clear signal, as Labour have argued, that the coalition’s policies are hurting and not working…
“The UK Government could do worse than learn from its Scottish neighbours.”
And on the overall picture, Richard Exell wrote:
“In May-July, there were 29.169 million people in employment. This was 69,000 lower than in April-June; normally a fall like this would only happen during a recession.
“The current data series goes back to 1992, and there have only been two periods that saw bigger falls: the early 90s recession and the 2008-9 recession.
“Unemployment rose over the 2½ million mark again, to 2,510,000. The 80,000 increase is also high – the highest since the period between the summer of 2008 and the summer of 2009, when the number out of work grew by three quarters of a million.
“There were 973,000 unemployed 16-24 year olds. This gives a youth unemployment rate of 20.8 per cent, the highest since 1992.
“This should be remarkable, but today was a day for records like this…
“It now looks very likely the Office for Budget Responsibility’s March forecast (pdf), that unemployment would peak at 8.2 per cent, was over-optimistic; their other unemployment forecast, that the claimant count would peak at 1.54 million, has already been overtaken.
“Without a plan B, it seems likely all this month’s entries in the record books are due to be replaced by new ones.”
The jobs stats dominated Prime Minister’s Questions this week – see here for our PMQs video and review.
• Also on Wednesday, to compound the feeling of crisis, the TUC announced a “day of action” on public sector pensions, planned for Wednesday, November 30th.
Explaining the decision, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:
“This call reflects the huge anger of public service workers over the threat to their pensions and the deep frustration over difficulties of securing government engagement in meaningful negotiations. This planned day of action will be an unprecedented coming together of the whole public service workforce and the communities they serve in a united demand for pensions justice.
“Unions remain absolutely committed, in good faith, to seeking a fair negotiated settlement of this dispute so that this action will not be necessary. But the government needs to understand the strength of unions’ resolve reflected in today’s decision.”
“The challenge I will be setting the TUC Congress this week is to build a campaign that can make this case for a thorough-going economic alternative.
“We have already defeated government claims that the cuts are fair and that they are protecting front-line services. But with the evidence growing stronger every day that austerity is simply making things worse, we now have our best opportunity to date to defeat their central economic claim they can eliminate a deficit built up by three decades of a faulty economic model in just four years.”
On the pensions debate, the right wing press spouted their usual anti-union bile – expertly rebutted by Left Foot Forward’s Daniel Elton yesterday, pointing out that public sector pension costs are set to fall – while today it was the turn of Lord Hutton to talk turkey, rebutted on Left Foot Forward this evening by Michael Burke.
Looking ahead then, what “civil disobedience” tactics can we expect on November 30th? See here for all you need to know about flash mobs, reverse strikes, smart strikes and more from Dan Whittle, the director of Unions 21.
Progressives of the week:
UNICEF, who this week called on the UK government to bring in a Living Wage for all government employees and sub-contractors, and bring pressure on businesses to do the same, thus enabling parents to work fewer hours and spend more time with their family.
They agency also urged local authorities to assess the impact of cuts on children so funding is protected for play and leisure facilities and activities.
The recommendations followed the publication on Wednesday of research (pdf) that set out to explain earlier findings (pdf) that, when compared to 20 other developed nations, Britain is at the bottom for children’s well-being. It concluded that family life in Britain is marred by consumeristic pressures much more than in the other Sweden and Spain.
Regressives of the week:
Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliot and UUP regional development minister Danny Kennedy are said to have “sold their principles for political expediency” and “should have known better” than attend the funeral of a Catholic, according to a letter of complaint filed by an Orange Lodge from the loyalist heartland of Sandy Row in South Belfast.
As Left Foot Forward’s Kevin Meagher explained:
“The two politicians face a hearing for attending the service and could face expulsion.
“A tenth of those expelled from the Orange Order are found ‘guilty’ of attending a Catholic religious service.
“Catholics and those related to Catholics are strictly prohibited from joining the order.
“The sheer perversity of this issue will leave most people dumbfounded, and rightly so. For two of Northern Ireland’s most senior political leaders to be hauled up before what amounts to a kangaroo court for the ‘crime’ of paying their respects at the funeral of a murdered police officer exposes the tensions that remain at the very heart of Northern Irish society.”
In 2011. In today’s Northern Ireland. After all everyone’s been through; that such unreconstructed bigotry still exists beggars belief.
Evidence of the week:
Green Alliance’s “Analysis of the government’s delivery of its low carbon commitments” audit (pdf) of the coalition’s progress in meeting the low carbon commitments that were set out in the Coalition Agreement (pdf) – which contained significant pledges to transition the UK to a low carbon economy.
The Green Alliance report revealed the government has made next to no progress on more than three quarters of its green promises, blamed on obstruction by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a lack of public backing from the prime minister himself, who in May 2010 vowed that this would be the “greenest government ever”.
Those credentials suffered a further blow today, with the news environment secretary Caroline Spelman will be summoned before the High Court later this year to face a judicial review for failing to protect people’s health from harmful levels of air pollution in towns and cities, following a legal challenge by Client Earth.
The World Outside Westminster by The Grapevine’s Chris Tarquini:
Another week in America meant another Republican Party debate as the candidates took to the stage to battle it out at the CNN/Tea Party debate in Florida.
Last week’s ‘Ponzi scheme’ reference to social security has done little to discredit Texas Governor Rick Perry as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, however it quickly turned into what NBC political director Chuck Todd described as ‘Get Perry Night’. Taking hits on immigration and his mandate of the HPV immunisation for young girls from ultra-conservatives Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, to the delight of the righter-wing than usual crowd, Perry seemed slightly like a rabbit in the headlights.
However, the Real Clear Politics average poll of polls currently gives Perry an 11% lead over Mitt Romney in second. Perry also seemed to have dodged a difficult decision this week when Texan Duane Buck was spared execution by the US Supreme Court after his lawyer argued his case was tainted by racial issues. The decision meant Perry, a strong supporter of the death penalty, will not have to take a position on the case.
On the progressive side of the political aisle, President Obama’s poll numbers have recovered slightly from a recent all time low of 38% approval to be between 39% and 42% over the last week in the Gallup daily tracking poll, still a dangerous number for a President seeking to be re-elected.
The Real Clear Politics poll of polls currently has Obama defeating every Republican candidate in a General Election.
One famous ‘Hockey Mom’ still being talked about as a potential opponent is former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is the subject of a new book this week that claims she took drugs and engaged in extra marital affairs, allegations her husband Todd has described as “disgusting”.
However, though even the New York Times has slammed the book as “caustic gossip”, it will do little to help her image as a clean-cut, Christian conservative.
Last week also marked the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite recent political partisanship in Washington, Presidents Obama and Bush joined together to commemorate the events of the tragic day with a minute’s silence being held not just in America but all over the world.
Various interviews and documentaries have relived the day and has led to a week of reflection in the US media about different available courses on the global stage after 9/11 and what the future might hold for the ‘War on Terror’.
One of the countries frequently mentioned as a threat to global security is North Korea. America was said to be watching closely the country’s joint naval operations with Russia in the hope it will not undercut international concern about its nuclear program.
Closer to home the results of the Danish elections are in and the bloc led by the centre-left Social Democrat party have won a narrow majority, ending almost a decade in opposition. The results means Helle Thorning-Schmidt will be the first female Danish prime minister.
Thorning-Schmidt, who is married to Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil, had campaigned on policies of tax increases and increased spending.
Current prime minister Lars Rasmussen was somewhat gracious in defeat, conceding:
“Tonight I hand over the keys to the prime minister’s office to Helle Thorning-Schmidt. And dear Helle, take good care of them. You’re only borrowing them.”
David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have become the first two world leaders to visit Libya following Colonel Gaddafi’s ousting last month, promising to continue to lend military and political aid as rebel authorities step up their hunt to take out the despot.
Despite the pair claiming they have no agenda in helping the rebels Mr Mostafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, explained that countries who had helped in the struggle would be looked upon favourably when the time came to allocate contracts, promising them a “premier role”.
Ed Jacobs’s Week Outside Westminster:
The major story in Wales this week is the tragic news from Gleision Colliery near Pontardawe in the Swansea Valley, where four miners died after flood water engulfed the drift mine when a retaining wall holding back a body of water underground failed.
The men, all of whom lived locally, were named today as Charles Breslin, 62; David Powell, 50; Garry Jenkins, 39; and Phillip Hill, 45.
Earlier this week, as Wales saw unemployment rise by 7,000 over the last year, there was a warning of “storm clouds” brewing over the country.
Robert Lloyd Griffiths, director of the Institute of Directors in Wales, declared:
“The storm clouds are gathering with falling employment and rising unemployment at a time when it is difficult to see how this might reverse. The ongoing uncertainty surrounding the eurozone crisis means that companies are likely to remain cautious about hiring and more certain about firing.”
Elsewhere, following Murdo Fraser’s plans for a new centre-right part in Scotland, so to in Wales, one Conservative AM called for greater autonomy for the party, arguing the legacy of Thatcher continued to hold the party back.
Writing for the Wales Home website, Deputy Presiding Officer and Conservative AM, David Melding, concluded:
“Greater autonomy is essential for the Welsh Conservative Party’s further success and a name change is a desirable option. Above all the people of Wales need a viable alternative to Labour.
“That alternative is likely to emerge in the course of the fourth Assembly and Wales will be a stronger democracy as a result. But it is far from certain whether Plaid or the Welsh Conservative Party will lead the process.”
As mentioned earlier, the main news from Northern Ireland is the threat of disciplinary action by the Orange Order against two unionist politicians for attending the funeral of murdered police hero Ronan Kerr in April. The widow of constable Kerr, Kate Carroll, remarked that their attendance at the funeral was “extremely noble and brave”.
The report explained that, following a previous report on the subject:
“A number of dual mandate MPs indicated that they would either give up their seat if elected to Westminster in May 2010 or not stand for re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011.
“But there are still nine Northern Ireland MPs, 50%, who have dual mandates, two of whom are also ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. The Committee continues to question whether it is possible to sit in two national legislatures simultaneously and do justice to both roles, particularly if the MP concerned holds a ministerial position.”
“Among all the nations and regions of the UK, Scotland was the only place with falling unemployment over the quarter, and we also have the largest decline in the unemployment rate over the year.
“The rise in Scottish employment over the year of 36,000 encompasses the entire UK-wide figure of 24,000. But as the claimant count rise indicates, more needs to be done and there are no grounds for complacency.
“We are building jobs and recovery in Scotland, and the UK Government must implement a plan B if our recovery is not to be derailed.”
The review into the future of Scottish Labour, meanwhile, used an interim report to call for a Labour party north of the border with much greater independence from London, with a leader for the whole party in Scotland, rather than just Holyrood.
In its leader article the Scotsman argued:
“The next Scottish leader however, should the proposals be ratified, will have that authority though whether an MP or MEP, when Scottish politics is firmly focused on Holyrood, is right for the job is questionable.
“Nevertheless, whomever replaces Iain Gray should take the review findings as Scottish Labour’s Clause IV moment when it publicly casts off the past and embraces a new future. Anything less, and the party will deservedly remain in the wilderness.”
The plans, however, did not meet with universal acceptance as it was reported that the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party saw Scottish Labour MP Michael McCann argue that Labour lost in May because the leadership at Holyrood “didn’t have gravitas”.