Listen lads - women's work counts, too

Labour myth: The new jobs are not real jobs
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The Independent Online
It was no surprise that David Blunkett, the shadow education and employment minister, attacked the Government's jobs record yesterday after the release of figures showing another staggering fall in the headline unemployment total. But Mr Blunkett reserved his real outrage for one particular Tory failure. "We have the worst record in any major industrialised nation for jobless households and there are around a million fewer men in work today than when John Major came to power," he said.

His comments followed the publication of a TUC report which focussed on the hard time "breadwinners" are having in today's world of work. John Monks, the TUC's general secretary, said: "Once the Government's rose- tinted spectacles have been removed, we see the reality behind their high employment figures. They have been achieved by including in their figures low-quality, low-hours, poorly paid jobs."

Real men don't work part time. Real men work down the pit or in t'mill and bring home enough money to keep a family of four. Or so you would have to conclude from Labour's rhetoric.

Labour thinks it is on to a vote-winner by concentrating its attack on dismal employment prospects and general insecurity. One of the chief weapons in its armoury is the claim that the Tories have generated only part-time - and by implication inferior - jobs.

Statistics on jobs and unemployment are unusually open to creative interpretation, partly because there are so many of them around and partly because they are fuzzy snapshots of a complicated and shifting reality. So when the Government claims that its policies have created employment and Labour replies that, oh no they haven't, it is hard to know who is the hero and who the pantomime villain.

Yesterday's headline statistics are about the least useful because they are so distorted by successive changes to benefit rules. The most reliable information comes from the Labour Force Survey, a quarterly survey that uses internationally accepted definitions of unemployment and employment. The latest one showed that the number of people unemployed, at just over two million, was 548,000 lower than when the economy was at the trough of the recession in the summer of 1992.

This comparison might favour the Government too much, for any damn-fool Chancellor ought to be able to deliver falling unemployment during an economic recovery. A tougher test is to compare yesterday's figures to the last peak in the economic cycle, in 1988. Unemployment now is 194,000 lower than it was then, suggesting that there has been some underlying improvement in the jobless total on top of the normal effect of the business cycle.

To counter this, Labour politicians object that the unemployment total does not tell the full story. For, they point out, some people have dropped out of the labour market altogether - they have given up looking for work out of sheer discouragement. These people are not classified as "unemployed", because this would require them to be actively job hunting. The number of these "economically inactive" adults has climbed by 270,000 since 1992 and 671,000 since 1988, lending some support to the theory that discouragement accounts for falling unemployment figures.

But at the same time the total number of adults of working age has risen even more, and some of them would have become "inactive" even if there had been no change in employment prospects. The bottom line for assessing the economy's record on employment is to look at the number of jobs - and, to be generous to the Labour myth, at the number of new jobs since the peak of the last business cycle.

True enough, 793,000 full-time jobs for men have vanished during the past nine years. On the other hand, the economy has created 518,000 part- time jobs for men, 280,000 full-time jobs for women and 499,000 part-time jobs for women. That is a net employment gain of just over half a million.

To slice these figures another way, 275,000 more men are out of work but 779,000 more women are in work now compared with 1988.

Labour's attack on the Government's jobs record depends on a clear assumption that those male job losses outweigh three times as many female job gains.

Spokesmen - sorry, spokespersons - often indicate that part-time jobs, which are mainly taken by women, are not proper jobs. The part-timers need to be converted to "full-time equivalents" before they can be counted. Not that they think it is just a question of the little lady going out to make some pin-money. New Labour shed that sort of attitude with its cloth caps. But the party is still clearly haunted by the ghost of the traditional breadwinner bringing home enough to support the family. It's New Labour, new lads.

But the same surveys show that 72 per cent of part-timers did not want a full-time job, and another 14 per cent are students not free to work full time. That makes sense - in fact it would be no surprise to find that as many full-timers would rather work part-time if they could. Of course, it might be that some of the 54 per cent of adult women who are in paid employment, whether for four hours a week or 40, would rather not have to go out to work at all. That they would rather be home-makers supported by a husband's or partner's earnings. After all, the housewife has a highly valued role in our society, as any politician would insist. But there are no statistics to support this rather doubtful contention.

The latest academic research, by Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth at the London School of Economics - no Tory hotbed - paints a picture of a labour market in which a lot of new jobs are indeed part-time and temporary but the fastest growing occupations are managerial and professional. There is a genuine employment ladder with part-time work as its first rung.

New Labour might find itself making more headway with real women if it stopped unconsciously belittling the five million female part-timers taking advantage of the flexible labour market.