Sam Bright refutes the Conservative Party’s widely deployed claim about Labour’s economic record

As political debate turns increasingly to the economy, the Conservatives have been deploying the claim that the Labour Party has never left office with unemployment lower than at the start of its term. Boris Johnson used the claim at Prime Minister’s Questions last week and is likely to keep doing so as he tries to distract from the current cost of living crisis.

However, it is not true. And it’s even more of a distortion when compared to the Conservative Party’s record on unemployment.

Let’s begin in 1923/1924 – since 1924 was the first year in which an administration directed by the Labour Party governed Britain (although it was a minority administration). Ramsay MacDonald’s Government only remained in power for nine months, and did not overlap a calendar year, so the unemployment figures for 1923 must be used as the base data.

In 1923, there were 1.57 million (7.99%) people unemployed in Britain. By the time Labour left office in 1924 this figure had dropped to 1.4 million (7.12%). This fall may not have been due to Labour policies (although it could well have been), but that is circumstantial. What it shows is that just one peek into the historical record can dismantle the Conservative Party’s pronouncements.

Move onwards to the Labour ‘golden years’, from 1945 to 1951, economic circumstances largely repeat. Labour assumed office in 1945, but since any record of unemployment in that year would have been dictated by the war, it is reasonable to begin an evaluation in 1946 (comparing peacetime figures with peacetime figures).

Unemployment in 1946 was 477,000 (2.04%) – i.e. incredibly low. When Labour left office in 1951, unemployment stood at 231,000 (1.57%) – also a decrease.

For those who wish to make a comparison between the aftermath of the First World War and World War Two, the unemployment rate in 1919 stood at 3.02%, and rose to 7.12% by 1924, under the direction of a Conservative-dominated administration.

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The Conservative Party’s claim is finally given some substance by Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, both of whom witnessed rising levels of unemployment during their regimes. 612,000 people were unemployed in 1964, as compared to 964,000 in 1970. From 1974 to 1979 unemployment also rose from 948,000 to 1.4 million.

Unemployment stood at 1.98 million when New Labour assumed office in 1997, and 2.5 million when it departed in 2010. However, Johnson’s gratification must surely be caught mid-flow when he realises that, from until the financial crash in 2008, unemployment was consistently below its 1997 level.

Thus, the Conservatives have failed to acknowledge two separate Labour administrations that fostered declining unemployment.


The Blue Corner

How do Conservative administrations compare during the same period?

After MacDonald’s Labour Government collapsed due to scandal in 1924, Stanley Baldwin – the dominant figure of interwar British politics – led a new Conservative era. As we know, 1.4 million people were unemployed in 1924 Britain. By the time MacDonald had ousted Baldwin at the 1929 General Election, this figure had risen to 1.5 million.

The next Prime Minister to serve in office as the leader of a Conservative government was a timeworn Winston Churchill – beginning a period of Conservative dominance that lasted from 1951 until 1964, distinguished by the phrase “Britons have never had it so good”.

Those who didn’t have it so good were the unemployed, who constituted 375,000 individuals (1.57%) in 1951 and 612,000 (2.4%) in 1964. By this point on our timeline, Labour had directed two governments responsible for falling unemployment.

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Passing through the economic time-warp, we now arrive at Edward Heath’s Conservative administration – which delivered falling unemployment, from 964,000 to 948,000 from 1970 to 1974.

Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal fascination with the free market resulted in more than 600,000 people being unemployed at the end of her reign than at the start. What’s more, for six of these 11 years, unemployment was above 10%.

The period from 1990 to 1997 did see a slight fall in unemployment during John Major’s tenure, from 2 million (7.1%), to 1.98 million (6.9%). Yet the unemployment rate sat consistently above 8% in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996.

David Cameron’s Coalition Government added to the list of Conservative regimes that pushed more people into work. However, this does not cement the Conservatives’ record as the party of falling unemployment and economic prudence. The Labour Party polished the trophy of reduced unemployment as frequently as the Conservatives during the 20th Century.

When the past is used to depict modern-day virtues, it is crucial to identify when falsehoods are warping the national story.

All economic data was provided by the Bank of England’s Three Centuries of Data report, which can be found here

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