Just over a month ago, Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a much-trailed “major” public address on the topic of immigration. After Labour had largely remained quiet about the issue in the first two years of the Coalition government, Miliband touted his speech as the first step in a new conversation, and offered extensive apologies about Labour’s past policies on immigration in a bid to begin to rehabilitate Labour’s public image in this policy area.
The apologies seemed to attract most of the headlines. Commentary from the political right welcomed this admission either wholeheartedly or with considerable scepticism (Daily Mail headline: “…What Sick Hypocrisy”). Commentators on the political left argued that Miliband should not have apologised for Labour’s record, disputed his claim that migration hurt wages or employment rates, and labelled his speech “backward-looking and depressing” rather than the promised “major shift.”
Are the commentators right? As my new research project at COMPAS, “Migration in the Media and Public Opinion in Britain,” moves from discovery phase toward realisation, I find myself equipped to conduct some preliminary analysis that goes beyond reading the text of Miliband’s speech for its meaning, and begins to probe the very words that constitute the building-blocks of the speech.
Certainly, the commentators are right in part: the speech did not offer a comprehensive new policy proposal. Nonetheless, a preliminary linguistic analysis shows signs that Miliband’s speech did begin to carve out new territory. These signs surface when we look at the words and phrases he used, particularly in comparison with David Cameron’s most recent major address on immigration in October 2011.
Perhaps the simplest way of analysing a text linguistically is to simply look at the words used most frequently. More helpfully than mere counting, we can examine the frequency of a word in two texts or bodies of text (“corpora” in linguistic jargon) side-by-side. With this comparison, we can determine statistically which words are significantly more common in one text or corpus than in the other. In corpus linguistics these are known as “key words.” It is important to note that “key words” in this technical sense are not always the most important to the meaning of the text; rather, they are “key” to determining statistically significant differences between texts or corpora. Thus, key words aren’t necessarily most meaningful words in Miliband’s or Cameron’s argument, but they can help show us where the two differ linguistically. In other words, the key words can tell us about differences in what the two leaders are talking about when they talk about immigration.
So what does such an analysis show? First, Miliband eschewed a part of Cameron’s vocabulary built around a discourse of control of various categories of migrants. Relative to Miliband’s speech, Cameron’s speech had key words such as “family” and “marriage” (used a combined 24 times by DC, compared with zero by EM), “students” (18 DC – 1 EM), and even “migrants” (15 DC – 0 EM). Interestingly, Miliband’s language referred to the phenomenon of “immigration” or “migration” (34 combined mentions), rather than to individuals as migrants. He referred to “immigrants” only twice, both in the context of his pride in his own family history, and referred twice to “migrant workers.” Again relative to Miliband’s speech, Cameron was much more inclined to use forms of the word “control” (18 DC – 2 EM). Cameron also used more words that seemed associated with the process of migrants arriving in Britain, such as “come” (41 DC – 10 EM), “here” (28 DC – 3 EM), and “bringing” (28 DC – 3 EM).
Turning to words present rather than absent in Miliband’s rhetoric, we see signs of a shifting discussion emphasising domestic labour markets. Key words include “wages” (15 EM – 1 DC), “train” (9 EM – 0 DC), “sectors” (9 EM – 0 DC), and “labour” (9 EM – 3 DC). Miliband talks in terms of “firms” (11 EM – 0 DC) and “labour” (9 EM– 3 DC, both excluding uses of Labour as a proper noun). In contrast, Cameron’s economic language is of “business” (11 DC – 0 EM) and “employers” (10 DC – 0 EM). Miliband also uses the word “economy” much more frequently (28 EM – 5 DC), most commonly in the phrase “our economy.” (Note that for statistical calculations of key words, we use not the raw number of mentions, but the percentage of the text that each word comprises. In this case, I present raw numbers as indicative, even though Cameron’s speech was somewhat longer.)
Further differences in economic rhetoric emerge from an inspection of “concordances.” A concordance is a sortable list of all appearances of a given word in a text, shown in the context of the sentence in which it appeared. Analysing concordances show that, while both leaders used variants of the word “work” extensively, their patterns of use were different in some telling ways. For example, Miliband used the phrase “working people” 11 times, including five times in various versions of apparently a favourite aspirational phrase: “an economy that works for working people.” Cameron never used the phrase “working people”; rather, his language of work was often about individuals’ potentially-shifting relationships to the world of work. This is shown by looking at the most frequent words preceding “work” in Cameron’s speech (“left-collocates” in corpus linguistic terms). The two most common were “into”—as in moving people “into work”—and variants of “find”—as in “finding work” or “found work”. Cameron also used the word “unemployed” three times compared to no mentions from Miliband.
This preliminary analysis, then, suggests that Miliband’s speech used a different vocabulary from Cameron’s. But what do these differences mean, and are they important? Here is where linguistic methods inevitably rely on interpretation of human readers of texts, rather than statistical measurement, so I would be foolish to draw any strong conclusions from such a basic analysis of two speeches. Nonetheless, as most but not all press commentators seemed to miss (e.g. there is a case that Miliband’s speech really does augur a shift to different ground, in keeping with his stated goal of starting a different conversation. (To be fair, I have not compared Miliband to prior Labour leaders or spokespersons in this analysis, so the question of novelty within the Labour ranks is not addressed head-on here.) Miliband’s repeated use of the language of “our economy”, “wages,” and “working people,” coupled with his shunning of variants of “control” and of references to “migrants” as a group or in particular categories such as students and family members, supports this sort of interpretation. If his language is any indication, Miliband’s developing approach to immigration will be distinct from Cameron’s in focusing more on regulating the economy as whole, and its impact on “working people” and their wages. It may also place less focus at least rhetorically on some of the traditional language of immigration control over the supply of migrants of various types.