Michael Gasiorek is Director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory and Co-Director of the Centre for Inclusive Trade Policy. He is Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex Business School. Justyna A. Robinson is a Reader in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sussex and a Director of Concept Analytics Lab.
In early 2023, the Labour Party launched a National Policy Forum. It comprised a series of public consultations across six core policy areas, with the stated aim of helping the Labour Party to ‘build their policy platform’. A key part of the consultation process was to invite written submissions on these policy areas. One of the six policy areas was entitled Britain in the World, (to which the UKTPO/CITP also responded), which posed a set of seven questions all of which related to trade and trade policy.
The consultations were due to lead to a set of policy documents to be agreed in July 2023. With any consultation exercise, including those undertaken by the UK Government on the UK’s Free Trade Agreements, it is hard to know how seriously the consultation is being taken and which if any of the diverse views and responses are being listened to, and how selectively. Consulting with stakeholders and members of the public in the formulation of policy are important if taken seriously, and so consultations such as this are, in principle, welcomed.
So, on the eve of the Labour Party conference, we have analysed all the submitted responses to identify the key issues raised. There were 310 responses submitted which varied considerably in length. Most submissions were less than 500 words, but some were as long as 10,000 words. It is important to note that the consultation was open to anybody: individuals as well as organisations and companies. The chart below shows that 35% of the submissions were submitted by non-Labour party members (labour guests).
Analysing the data is a challenge because the responses vary enormously in length and scope – with some private individuals submitting short sentences on a couple of issues, to larger organisations and companies submitting lengthy responses. Fortunately, there are tried and tested methods (and smart) software which provide a means for using corpus and natural language processing techniques for the analysis of such textual responses and controlling for different lengths of responses, so that individual lengthy responses do not dominate the analysis.
A key aspect of the analysis is to identify the frequency with which submissions raise particular issues. This is done by comparing the frequency of given words or groups of words in the submissions, relative to the frequency with which those words would appear in ‘normal’ usage. Hence words that appear relatively more frequently are those that prima facie raise issues that the respondents care about. In the jargon, this is called the ‘keyness’ score. We also need to control for the fact that certain terms may appear more frequently in individual responses. So, we want to be able to identify how often an issue is raised but to adjust for those issues being raised frequently in a small number of responses. This is done by producing something called the ‘average reduced frequency’ (ARF).
Consider the chart below. This gives the ARF score for the top 10 identifiable trade issues raised in groups of up to three words. We see that the issue of trade and human rights is the primary concern, on average across the responses. Care has to be taken in interpreting the height of the bars – just because a bar is twice as high does not mean that the issue was perceived as twice as important. Nevertheless, it is clear that human rights were perceived as considerably more important than supply chains and economic growth.
Relatedly, if one takes the importance of individual words, the word ‘promote’ has a high ARF score. On its own, it is not clear what the respondents want promoting, and so we look at the collocation of words. This identifies that the key objective here was to promote growth, followed by rights, values, trade, and development in order of importance. Another word with a high individual score was ensure which co-occurs most with security (of supply chains), rights, and access (markets, supply chains), suggesting that these are of high importance for trade policy.
Of course, the frequency of some of these words will have been driven by the specific questions posed by the consultation exercise, as given above, which specifically asked about growth, supply chains and human rights for example. Even so, the rankings are significant as they indicate which of these issues appear of greater concern to respondents.
More depth in the analysis can be obtained by considering the nature of the responses to the individual questions posed. Hence, the responses pertaining to the role of international trade in promoting domestic economic growth, boosting jobs and driving up wages illustrate different perceptions of what trade policy is for. While some responses highlighted the role of trade in boosting productivity, innovation and access to supply chains, as well as emphasising trade with the EU; others focused on the role of trade (deals) in building relationships, soft power, and trust with third-party countries. Additionally, some demonstrated concern for objectives which are not focused on economic growth and economic efficiency such as the regional dimension, worker and human rights, or environmental protection.
With regards to the regional dimension, there is a clear message that international trade, especially services trade as well as ‘green’ trade, could and should be used to reduce regional disparities but that this also requires much more substantial investment in infrastructure and transport networks, as well as policies to mitigate negative impacts if it is to be successful. There was general acceptance of the importance of building more resilience in supply chains with a focus on the need to build trust with partner countries and reorienting supply chains to more trusted countries as well as protecting cyber-security. Interestingly, there was an overlap here with environmental and rights concerns with several respondents calling for more due diligence requirements in supply chains and moving to net-zero supply chains.
Environmental protection and cognate terms such as green technology, carbon emissions, energy, due diligence come up widely in the responses with widespread support for a better environment and net zero, even if it means renegotiating existing deals. Interestingly, the desire to use trade deals to lead to better outcomes in these regards does not pertain just to the UK, but that the trade deals should be used to influence and change practices in partner countries.
The responses highlight the importance of taking into account how trade may negatively impact a range of outcomes, be this with regard to the environment, regions, agriculture and animal welfare, older workers, disabled workers, or women. However, such concerns did not lead to opposition to trade deals, but rather to suggesting that (a) consideration of such impacts should form a (more) explicit element in the evaluation of proposed trade deals; and importantly (b) that there should be much more widespread inclusive consultation processes with affected groups, sectors, and regions in the formulation of trade policy and the negotiation of agreements.
Given the range of questions posed in the consultation exercise, it is perhaps not surprising that there is considerable heterogeneity in the answers. One clear message, however, which emerges is the recognition that trade is good for growth and an important element in raising productivity, but that at the same time, trade policy needs to be value driven. While these are not necessarily mutually exclusive there are trade-offs in trying to meet all the objectives. Hopefully publication of a trade strategy by the Labour Party may provide some insights on their approach to those trade-offs, and maybe the forthcoming conference may also shed some more light.
 Categories as defined by the Forum, see bottom of this page for all categories: https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/britain-in-the-world
 Note that we have excluded here terms that came up but do not, of themselves, shed meaningful light on trade issues, such as ‘UK government’ or ‘Labour Party’
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.
The UK Trade Policy Observatory believes in the free flow of information and encourages readers to cite our materials, providing due acknowledgement. For online use, this should be a link to the original resource on our website. We do not publish under a Creative Commons license. This means you CANNOT republish our articles online or in print for free.