Evening Standard comment: Good news on jobs but Big Squeeze continues

EVENING STANDARD COMMENT

There's bad news and good news in today’s figures from the Office for National Statistics. The bad is that the big squeeze on households is getting tighter: that is, in April to June, wages rose slower than inflation for the fifth successive month, which means households are worse off than they were a year ago. Wages went up by 2.1 per cent in the second quarter, compared to the 2.6 per cent rise in prices revealed in yesterday’s inflation figures.

On the bright side, there were 32.07 million people in work in the quarter to June, 125,000 more than for the first three months of the year and 338,000 more than this time last year. Indeed, the employment rate (the proportion of people aged 16 to 64 who were in work) was 75.1 per cent, the highest since comparable records began in 1971. In theory, greater demand for labour means employees have more scope to ask for higher wages, but although pay has gone up it hasn’t done so by as much as prices. So the feelgood factor, on which so much consumer confidence depends, is not what it should be. It is also true, however, that there is a quid pro quo here: if pay is kept at below inflation rates, especially in the public sector, employers can keep more people in work.

The number of workers here who were born elsewhere in the EU continues to increase — there are now 2.37 million EU nationals working in the UK — but the annual increase has slowed quite considerably. What that means is that given the labour requirements of employers the prospect of a post-Brexit fall in the number of skilled and unskilled workers coming here from elsewhere in Europe raises real problems. The question of how we continue to attract and retain EU workers on whom many sectors depend, while at the same time eschewing outright freedom of movement, remains one of the most challenging aspects of the Brexit negotiations.

Trump’s outburst

What is striking in the response to Donald Trump’s extraordinary press conference on the Charlottesville demonstration — in which he blamed violence on both sides — is the contempt it elicited from his own party. Prominent Republicans echoed the sentiments of John McCain: “There is no moral equivalency between racists and Americans standing up to defy hate and bigotry”.

The contrast between the President’s remarkable outbursts yesterday and his more measured performance on Monday is simple: on Monday he was reading from an autocue a script presumably drafted by his advisers while yesterday he was speaking off the cuff, with the inevitable results. He may have been right that there was violence in the counter-demonstrations against white supremacist shows of strength in Charlottesville but it was quite extraordinary for Mr Trump to fail to distinguish between the motivation and nature of the two sides, one of whom recalls the darkest periods of US history. The melancholy truth is that the President cannot be trusted to speak off the cuff without causing controversy. We can only hope that his advisers keep him on-script wherever possible.

Save the bongs

There is growing disquiet among MPs at the prospect that Big Ben will be silent for four years while work on the Elizabeth Tower takes place. One Tory MP, Nigel Evans, spoke for the rest when he accepted that workers doing the restoration must be protected but called for “out-of-the-box ideas” to allow the bells to carry on tolling at some times during the day, especially when work is over. Let’s have more imaginative thinking to keep Big Ben striking.

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