Britons Not Rewarding Ruling Party for Improving Jobs Market

Why aren’t more Britons voting for the party that saved them from the worst economic crisis in decades?

British prime minister David Cameron delivers a news conference in London, England, February 11, 2014
British prime minister David Cameron delivers a news conference in London, England, February 11, 2014 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

The BBC’s Robert Peston asks the question many commentators have since the start of the British election campaign: Why isn’t the improving jobs market delivering more votes for the Conservative Party?

Unemployment, at 5.6 percent, is almost at the level where it was before the 2008 financial crisis and down from 8 percent when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took over from Labour in 2010. The employment rate, at 73.4 percent, is the highest since the country started keeping records in 1971. Yet Prime Minister David Cameron’s party is still neck and neck with Labour in the opinion polls.

Labour complained for five years that wages weren’t keeping up with the improving employment figures. (Which isn’t unusual after a recession.) They are starting to. Peston points out that pay rose 1.8 percent in the three months to February. Given that inflation is basically at zero, that means a real gain for working Britons. Thanks to low oil prices worldwide, fuel is cheaper as well. Households’ disposable income is actually at a six-year high!

This combination of jobs growth and pay rises is just what David Cameron and George Osborne hoped and prayed would happen when they set the UK on a path of austerity, both massively shrinking public sector employment — from more than 21 percent of all UK jobs in 2010 to 17.4 percent today — and freezing public-sector pay.

They assumed they would receive an electoral reward for being tough on the deficit — the record 10 percent gap between public spending and tax revenues — so long as real pay rose a good few months before polling day and unemployment fell.

The notion, promulgated by Labour, that the rise in employment has mainly come about thanks to insecure and part-time jobs is false. Zero-hours contracts, which Labour has singled out as especially problematic, account for somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the workforce. Peston notes that out of 567,000 jobs that were created in the last year, only a fifth were part-time.

He doesn’t understand either why there’s still a good chance Britons will vote the Conservatives out of office next month. After five years of biting the bullet, they seem ready to hand over the reins to a Labour Party again that taxed and spent the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.

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