Is David Cameron taking a leaf from the book of Fredrik Reinfeldt, the charismatic Conservative leader who brought the New Moderates to power in the Swedish general election in September, by attacking Gordon Brown on his employment record?
Reinfeldt, you will recall, led his party to a narrow victory over the incumbent Swedish Social Democrats, who had been in power for the previous 12 years. Although a number of factors have been attributed to his success, most commentators agree that of central importance was his questioning of the Social Democrat's employment record during the campaign.
In the run up to the election, the Social Democrats, led by Goran Persson, boasted an official unemployment rate of just 6 per cent, and an economic growth rate of 5.6 per cent. However, Reinfeldt successfully exploited popular anxieties over the global competitiveness of the so-called ‘Swedish model’ by suggesting that the true unemployment figure was much closer to 20 per cent, if you counted those on youth training schemes, early retirement or on long-term sick pay who might otherwise have been in work. The message stuck, and was enough to secure Reinfeldt's New Moderates a seven seat majority over their Social Democratic rivals.
Meanwhile, yesterday Cameron attacked Gordon Brown for disguising the level of unemployment in the UK. In a speech on disability in Edinburgh he said it was 'morally wrong and economically stupid' that five million people were left 'on the scrap heap' while firms dealt with the resulting labour shortage by employing migrants. Cameron was immediately accused by Labour of wildly inflating the unemployment figures, and berated for implying that even the seriously ill and disabled should be forced back into the job market. But could Cameron be attempting a re-run of the Reinfeldt strategy by questioning the accuracy of Labour's employment statistics? If so, what are his chances of convincing the electorate?
On the surface, a contest with Gordon Brown over Labour’s employment record looks like a highly risky strategy for Cameron to pursue. As chancellor, Brown has presided over a record decline in the unemployment rate - the current figure, according to the ONS, stands at just 1.7 million, or 5.5 per cent of the UK workforce (although, more worryingly, the rate has risen by 280,000 over the past year to its highest point since 2000). Cameron will also be aware of his party’s own abysmal record in this regard. Under Margaret Thatcher, the number of people on the dole queue in Britain in 1986 hit 3.1 million, 10.6 per cent of the UK work force.
However, in raising the issue yesterday Cameron will no doubt be mindful of the 2.7 million on the government’s books currently claiming incapacity benefit (all of whom are included in Cameron’s 5 million figure as being ‘on the scrap heap’ and therefore potentially able to work). In his speech, Cameron attacked the government’s record in this area by suggesting that more should be done to incentivise the disabled back in to work, and that the current range of employment-related benefits should be consolidated into a single benefit and assessment.
Labour is aware of its potential vulnerability on this issue. Unlike the unemployment rate, the number claiming incapacity benefit has risen since Labour came to power, from 2,370,500 in May 1997 to 2.7 million today (although we shouldn’t forget that the biggest rise in those claiming the benefit occurred in the 1980s, under the Conservative’s watch). Earlier this year, the pensions secretary John Hutton committed the government to shaving 1 million off the 2.7 million figure within 10 years by replacing incapacity benefit with a work-incentivising employment allowance, and providing more support to get the disabled back to work.
Some studies, however, have questioned whether this target is achievable under the government’s current proposals. If this proves to be the case, and the government fails to make significant in roads into the number claiming incapacity benefit by the time of the next election, then a Swedish-style dispute over Gordon Brown's 'true' unemployment figures could well be on the cards.