David Cameron has hailed new figures which show unemployment is at a seven-year low – but Labour says too many jobs are part-time.
The prime minister said the coalition had overseen a “jobs miracle” and the UK had created more jobs since 2010 than the rest of the EU put together.
Unemployment fell by 76,000 to 1.84 million in the three months to February, official statistics show.
Labour welcomed the fall, but accused the Tories of ignoring low pay growth.
The economy moved centre stage again after Thursday’s TV election debate, in which Labour leader Ed Miliband and four other party leaders clashed over the deficit, immigration, health and defence. Mr Cameron and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg did not take part.
In other election news:
- Labour has launched its Scottish manifesto, while Mr Miliband insisted Labour would never join a coalition with the SNP
- Thursday’s BBC debate was watched by 4.3 million people, according to overnight figures
- Both the Conservatives and UKIP launched their Welsh manifestos
- Almost a quarter of British Asians have yet to decide how to vote, research suggests
- The Ulster Unionists launched their manifesto, after the Northern Ireland parties held their first TV debate
The number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in March fell by 20,700 to 772,400, the Office for National Statistics said. Separate figures showed average earnings rose 1.7% over the same period, down from 1.9% over the previous three months.
Mr Cameron said the UK had created two million jobs since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in May 2010 and was the “jobs factory of Europe”.
“We are living through a jobs miracle brought to you by a Conservative government,” he said.
Analysis by economic editor Robert Peston
David Cameron may look at today’s stats on unemployment and wonder why on earth his party is only neck-and-neck with Labour in the opinion polls, and not benefiting from record employment levels and a significant rise in inflation-adjusted pay.
Probably the most interesting stat for me was that regular pay – excluding bonuses – saw a 2.2% increase in February and a 1.8% rise in the three months to Feb. And for the first time since serious records began, that headline rise is the real rise – because CPI inflation is 0%.
It is striking that fears of employers significantly shrinking pay rises with the disappearance of inflation have not materialised: there is no sign in the UK of so-called bad deflation.
Every new job, he said, was “giving families security, putting food on tables and helping people out of poverty”.
“We are on the cusp of something special in our country: full employment, a job for everyone who wants one, if we stick to the plan, we can reach it,” he said, claiming that Labour would put that at risk.
The PM has also been buoyed by remarks by International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde praising the strength of the UK recovery compared with the rest of the European Union.
Speaking in Washington at the organisation’s spring conference, Ms Lagarde said the UK’s strategy was “delivering results” and compared to the growth rates of other EU countries “it’s obvious what’s happening in the UK has worked”.
The Tories’ coalition partners are also claiming credit.
Liberal Democrat and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said: “With record numbers of people in work and the highest employment rate ever, people can see the difference Lib Dems have made in government.
“The balance, common sense, fairness and financial discipline praised by the IMF today are the things we have brought to government.”
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna welcomed the fall in unemployment, saying it was a “huge issue”.
But he accused the Conservatives of ignoring “the fact that 1.3 million people are working part-time at the moment who would like to be working full-time”.
“They ignore things like the fact that on average people are earning £1,600 less now than they were in May 2010,” he added.
And launching his party’s youth manifesto – which would ban unpaid internships or work experience after more than four weeks – Mr Miliband said “too often jobs in our country are low-paid, low-skilled and insecure”.
“It is not just about zero-hours contracts. It is about the way our economy works generally.
“Young people have done badly, with growing debt, an insecure job and owning a home a distant dream.”
Mr Miliband said the Tories did not represent working people and that their policies benefited the richest in society.
Labour also seized on comments by Conservative minister Iain Duncan Smith that zero-hours contracts should be renamed as “flexible contracts”, saying it showed “how completely out of touch David Cameron’s Tories are with the lives of working people”.
As the dust settles on last night’s TV debate, both the Conservatives and Labour are under pressure to explain what they would do if they failed to win enough seats to govern on their own.
Policy guide: Economy
This issue includes the wider economy and deficit reduction but also employment and the role of business.
Both insist they can win outright but neither have ruled out coalitions of some kind or a looser arrangement, where they could rely on the backing of other parties to get their legislation through Parliament.
During Thursday’s debate, Mr Miliband rejected an offer from SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to “work together” to keep the Conservatives out of power, insisting again that he would not make a formal coalition with them.
Opinion polls have suggested the SNP is on course to win a swathe of seats in Scotland and to be in a powerful position in the event of an inconclusive result, but the Conservatives have said any arrangement involving them would be a “calamity” for the UK.
Subscribe to the BBC Election 2015 newsletter to get a round-up of the day’s campaign news sent to your inbox every weekday afternoon.