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Return to Socialism?

25 September 2013

Ed Miliband’s address to the Labour Party Conference on 24 September 2013  has caused quite a stir. Interviewed in the 8:10 slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the day after his speech, Miliband faced a number of questions about the extent to which his speech signalled a return to a ‘collectivist’ past. He was even asked to define what ‘Miliband-ism’ was.

One of the most striking aspects of this coverage is the extent to which commentators have been drawn to the word ‘socialism’. Another, is the extent to which Labour spokespeople have refused to be drawn on this term. Miliband was asked whether it was fair to describe him as ‘red Ed’. His response was to emphasise that he was taking a common sense approach. Ed Balls had adopted a similar tactic in an interview with Evan Davies on the 24 September. So had Douglas Alexander in an interview with Eddie Mair immediately after Miliband’s address.

The newspapers have adopted similar language to the BBC. The Daily Mail have criticised a ‘1970s-style plan’. The Telegraph have repeated the s-word. Others have labelled his plans as ‘anti-capitalist’. But how far is this a return to the past?

The nature of ‘socialism’ – particularly in a British sense – has always been contentious. But it is possible to get a sense of how important a concept it has been to political debate. A rough way of doing this is to simply count the number of times that the word is used in political reporting.

I’ve just conducted a basic search of the word using the Times Digital Archive. The results show how many times ‘socialism’ appeared in ‘news’ and ‘editorial’ categories within a single year. Repeating this search at 10-year intervals, it is possible to build a very rough picture of shifting trends. The results are as follows:

1903 – 102 articles            1953 – 117 articles          2003 – 85 articles
1913 – 100 articles            1963 – 204 articles
1923 – 269 articles            1973 – 249 articles
1933 – 294 articles            1983 – 279 articles
1943 – 65 articles              1993 – 157 articles

The choice of the ’03 intervals reflects the fact that the speech was delivered in 2013. This has perhaps skewed the results as it misses out the 1945 Labour government – which was elected on a manifesto promising to recreate Britain as a ‘Socialist Commonwealth’.

That said, an interesting picture does emerge, with the frequency of usage notably high in 1933 (a period of economic and political instability) and 1983 (an election year that saw Margaret Thatcher pitted against a left-leaning Labour opposition). The small number of results in 2003 is also to be expected (Tony Blair’s New Labour placed an emphasis on the ‘New’).

How far Miliband’s speech will change the picture in 2013 remains to be seen.

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