The south-east booms while other regions stagnate, and low-paid, part-time jobs proliferate – a smarter safety net is needed to remedy growing imbalances.
The latest figures for employment are as good as they are bad – and as intriguing. Unemployment continues to fall, now below 5%, a level not seen since before the 1970s recession. The Office for National Statistics has announced that average pay rose last year by 2.4%. Even the pay gap fell. “Income for the poorest fifth was up 5% and for the richest fifth was down.” Only the top 1% continued to soar away from the rest – to the impotent fury of Jeremy Corbyn. But the reason appears to be that poorer men, in particular, are being driven out of disappearing, once-secure full-time jobs into booming, insecure, part-time ones. The much-vaunted “change in the nature of work” is happening fast, and hitting the poorest. Twenty years ago, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, only one man in 20 was in low-paid, part-time work. Now it is one in five, and worse in depressed parts of the country.
Employment figures are notoriously vulnerable to spin. Clearly the British figures are showing the benefits of a more deregulated, disruptive economy – compared with elsewhere in the EU. Weaker labour laws have flooded its dominant service economy with “McJobs”, “gig” labour and zero-hours contracts. This has driven down unemployment, but it has clearly affected the working lives of poorer people.
There is no going back on the economy. The hollowing out of the labour market is a widely accepted feature of the digital revolution. The decline in unionised jobs in fixed places of work is being replaced by a rising demand for personal services such as education and health, catering, leisure and tourism. Legal victories – as over holiday pay for “gig” workers – can promote fairness. But the flexible subcontract has replaced the job for life – unless Britain wants to strive after French or Italian levels of unemployment.
So where stands Theresa May’s “shared society” and her “just-about-managing” families? The answer must be that a disruptive economy requires a smarter welfare safety net. Minimum wages, once economic anathema, are now entrenched, and there is talk of a basic universal income, at least in concept a sensible Keynesian way of regulating demand.
More critical is the dire geographical imbalance revealed in the low-pay figures. For a decade every item of government policy – including state investment – has tipped growth into the south-east. This harms national productivity and wastes public investment as it clearly does human resources. The British economy cannot ride for ever on the prosperity of one region. Employment policy has been a success, but it is not yet smart.