The Conservatives are overseeing a criminal waste of Britain’s potential

Alison McGovern
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

It’s time to debunk Boris Johnson’s big jobs lie. Keen observers will have noticed that, whenever he is under pressure in the Commons chamber, the Prime Minister retreats to the same place. He will tell parliament that more people are in work than before the pandemic – when in fact there are fewer. He’ll be rebuked (and rebuked and rebuked) but then repeat his false claim on eight further occasions.

We all know that Johnson can’t be trusted, but it’s increasingly clear that he’ll blithely tell you that up is down – and hope you won’t notice. Compared to pre-pandemic trends, we’re missing around a million people from our labour market. Put simply, there are too few workers to go around. This is because worklessness due to ill health is at its highest rate in 20 years. Although millions of people can’t get treatment and can’t get back to work, Health Secretary Sajid Javid shrugged his shoulders and conceded that waiting lists wouldn’t start shrinking for years.

We’re experiencing a British recruitment crisis where businesses are crying out for staff – some can’t even open their doors. Typically, a competitive jobs market leads to competitive wages but last week’s statistics showed the “largest fall in real pay on record”, according to Institute for Employment Studies director Tony Wilson. Across the country, working people are seeing costs spiral but wages fall.

In the last two years, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of older workers fall out of the labour market altogether – at a time when their experience is crucial – but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, doesn’t count rising economic inactivity as a top priority.

They are out of touch. The Conservatives can’t see that there’s a problem and don’t have a plan to fix it. They’re cutting 41 DWP processing offices, removing one of the key tools to help support people back into work. Instead, they introduced dud Kickstart and Restart schemes and farmed out a fortune to companies like Serco and G4S, which categorically failed to hit their targets. As a result, the DWP has quietly handed back over £600m to the Treasury, with little to show for them. The Tories promised (20 times) to bring forward an employment bill – but it was missing from the Queen’s speech yet again.

Rather than dealing with the mess they’ve made, the government continues to pretend the labour market is in good shape. However, if they don’t act, things will get worse. Next year, the British economy is forecast to stop growing altogether – the only major nation to perform worse will be Russia, which is sanctioned up to its eyeballs. In Britain, one in five workers is employed below their skill level – each of these people could be earning more and making the cost-of-living crisis easier to bear. We’re also no longer investing in skills; the number of under-25s starting apprenticeships each year collapsed by 40% between 2014/15 and 2020/21.

Last week, Rachel Reeves spoke about the need for a “modern supply side” approach to the economy. That means the government not just sitting back but taking a more active role in tackling structural economic problems and supporting growth – including crafting a jobs market that works for businesses, people and the wider economy. After a decade of weak growth and stagnant pay, it is no longer enough for government to just get out of the way.

What’s more, people can’t afford more Conservative disarray. In a cost-of-living crisis, the inability to support people back into work is a damning indictment of the DWP. The Conservative rhetoric around high employment is a myth. Economic inactivity is sky-high, people don’t have the jobs they deserve, and businesses do not have the workers they need. We need the right people in the right jobs at the right wage.

Johnson wants you to think his failing government is handling the economy well. That is yet another lie. The Tories are overseeing a criminal waste of Britain’s potential.

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