Redshift at the Polls

Historic election results are becoming more and more uncertain and we’re doing nothing to stop it

Political Science

Jack Bailey


August 29, 2023

As you read these words, the heavens are expanding. Soon, distant galaxies will retreat so far away that their light will never reach us again. When this happens, it will be as though they never existed at all. We’ll still be able to see those stars that share our galaxy, but those outside of it will be lost to us forever.

We know this because the light these objects omit is redder than it should be. This occurs because, as the universe expands, it stretches the space between light waves travelling towards us from distant objects. Our eyes then perceive these longer light waves as being more red, leading to a kind of “redshift” in the colour of the stars.

Something similar is happening in British politics. As time passes, historic elections get further and further away from us. While we might still know the key results, the details become more and more uncertain. And, like distant stars in the night’s sky, soon they too will be lost to us forever.

This is a crucial problem for students of British politics. Since the advent of equal suffrage, only 24 general elections have taken place. This is not a large sample. As a result, there is only so much these data can teach us about how British politics works. In an ideal world, the problem would solve itself with the passage of time. With more elections comes more information that we can use to make sense of things. The problem, of course, is that the world is far from ideal.

This is also a crucial problem for British democracy, since the past is a reference against which we orient the present. Two issues spring to mind. First, that electoral uncertainty undermines political legitimacy. If we don’t know what happened, how can we be sure that we arrived where we are in a fair and democratic manner? Second, that the less we know about the past, the worse our ability to make decisions in the present. Are we doomed to vote for the same old mistakes over and over again?

Let’s use the 1945 UK general election as an example. It was, without doubt, the most important in recent British history. If Labour had not won, there would be no NHS and much of the post-war welfare state would look very different. Thus, we would expect to know a lot about it. Some things we know for sure. For instance, the result was a Labour landslide and the election occurred on the 5th July 1945. But others we do not. The official results are, to all intents and purposes, lost to history. We can do our best to piece them together using whatever contemporaneous data we can find, but much uncertainty remains.

When it comes to what happened in 1945, our two best sources are the Constituency-Level Elections Archive and Resul Umit’s constituency-level results data. Yet the two don’t even agree on what the vote count was. According to CLEA, it was around 27 million. According to Umit, it was 25 million instead.

Given these differences, we might ask “what do the official statistics say?”. While this is a sensible question, there is one problem: there aren’t any. The House of Commons library does host data on elections since 1918. Yet most of these data are second hand and exist only thanks to psephologists like FWS Craig who had the foresight to collect them at the time.

To be clear, I am not looking to deride either CLEA, Umit, or the House of Commons Library. All do valiant work that we would be much poorer without. Rather, my point is that if we care about British democracy, we need to preserve evidence of it. Otherwise, data will degrade, errors will accumulate, and uncertainty will overwhelm us.

Fundamentally, this is a failing of the British state. Labour’s historic landslide occurred within living memory only 78 years ago. Indeed, there will be thousands of people alive today who were also alive to witness Clement Attlee become Prime Minister. Yet, in this time, we have lost the ability to say what Labour’s vote share was at this most crucial point in its history. Though I have used 1945 as an example here, I’d wager that this is also true for all other intervening elections, since the state has no repository of election results nor has one ever existed.

The question then is what we should do about it. I like FWS Craig’s suggestion: that Returning Officers should have to send data on every election to the Clerk of the Crown.1 But this alone is not enough. The government should also make the raw data available online in a transparent and open-source format that anyone can access. Further, the data should be permanent, with any changes resulting in a new version of the data and an accompanying change log.

Now is the perfect time to be an astronomer. After all, we live in a time when telescopes exist that are powerful enough to see distant stars, galaxies, and other celestial way markers. That might not always be the case. The same is true for political science: we now know more and have more data than ever before. But if we want that to continue, and to protect our democracy, we need to avoid our own redshift at the polls and do what we can to preserve historic election data.


  1. Thanks to Elise Uberoi for making me aware of this↩︎