British Local Elections Database: informing policy and ‘illuminating democracy’
Submitting InstitutionPlymouth University
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Political Science
Summary of the impact
The British Local Elections Database and accompanying research output
comprise a unique national resource through which political parties, media
organisations, official statistical sources, central and local government,
and public affairs companies have been able to report on and analyse
electoral trends. This has informed and impacted on political debate and
policy-making, and in turn has led to an increased public understanding
and awareness of how to benchmark and interpret election outcomes. The
impact of the research peaked in reach and significance at the time of the
2010 general election, but is also apparent at the annual local elections
and in the constant tracking of patterns of behaviour at local
The British Local Elections Database was initiated at Plymouth University
in 1985 and has subsequently been developed and updated annually through
to 2013 with funding support in excess of £350,000 from, inter alia, the
ESRC, the AHRC, the Electoral Commission, and EMAP plc. A fully searchable
and downloadable version of the database has been deposited with the UK
Data Archive (study number 5319).
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have
been involved with this research from the beginning as Professors and
co-Directors of the Elections Centre at Plymouth University, and as grant
holders. Dr Galina Borisyuk, Lecturer in Advanced
Quantitative Methods at Plymouth, has been a core member of the team since
1999. Dr Lawrence Ware (now Head of Management Information Systems
at Hartpury College) played a key role in designing and refining the
database structure during his time as a PhD student at Plymouth
(1998-2002) and subsequently as a researcher on the 2003-5 ESRC project
(RES- 023-25-001). He left Plymouth University in 2008. Data for Scotland,
which is included in the database, was compiled by Professor David
Denver who retired from Lancaster University in 2010 but has
continued to compile and share information.
The aim of the research was to establish a relational database of all
principal council local elections (and by-elections) in Britain for as
many years as information could be located. Because there is no central
record of election results, and in order to keep the database current,
such information is collected by post, email and telephone from all local
authorities with elections in any given year.
The structure of the British Local Elections Database reflects the
structure of local government elections in Britain. Users may produce
`reports' that give detailed results for chosen elections in a form
equivalent to that used in the reporting of general election constituency
results. These may include spatial and administrative details as well as
votes, turnout, and indicators of the sex of candidates and whether or not
they are incumbent councillors. An annual Local Elections Handbook
containing all results for that year is published, and bespoke spread
sheets and/or derived tables from each year are made available to bona
fide researchers. Additional information relating in particular to absent
voting and spoilt ballot papers has been compiled on behalf of the
Electoral Commission since 2004 and used to inform its statutory
reporting. The British Local Elections Database and associated
documentation was submitted as an output from Plymouth University to 2008
The availability of detailed local election results has been pivotal in
establishing an original and distinctive sub-field within electoral
studies. The historical data have been used in facilitating new scholarly
analyses both by us (see section 3), our collaborators including Professor
Ron Johnston (Bristol) and Dr Scott Orford (Cardiff), as
well as other researchers; contemporary data have been used for the
improved forecasting, benchmarking, and analysis of election outcomes. It
is the latter activity that underpins the impact of this research. A
Political Studies Association of the UK award in 2007 acknowledged the
Centre's `crucial work on elections over a sustained period of time' and
combination of `academically rigorous study with rare communicative skills
which allow the public to make sense of electoral change'.
References to the research
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, Local Elections in Britain,
Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0 415 05953 4. Political Studies Association review:
`A genuinely path-breaking book - the first ever comprehensive book-length
study of local elections in Britain'.
Evaluations of end-of-award report for ESRC grant to Colin Rallings and
Michael Thrasher, RES-023- 25-001 2003-5, Updating Local Elections
Database. Reviewer A: `amongst the most useful and competently
produced of all ESRC-funded research that I have evaluated and read';
Reviewer B: `The researchers are world-renowned experts in their field and
this report reflects the usual high standards of their work'.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, 'Forecasting Vote and Seat Shares'
in David Farrell et al (eds.), British Elections and Parties Yearbook
1996 (Frank Cass, 1996). ISBN 0 7146 4770 5. Fully peer- reviewed
annual predecessor of Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, Local votes, national forecasts -
using local government by- elections in Britain to estimate party support,
International Journal of Forecasting, 15, 2, 1999, pp.153- 162.
Peer reviewed journal, 5 year impact factor (Thomson Reuters) 2.450
Colin Rallings, Michael Thrasher, Galina Borisyuk, and Elena Long,
Forecasting the 2010 general election using aggregate local election data,
Electoral Studies, 30, 2, 2010, pp.269-77. International,
peer-reviewed journal. 5 year impact factor (Thomson Reuters) 1.470
Colin Rallings, Ron Johnston, and Michael Thrasher, Changing the
Boundaries but Keeping the Disproportionality: The Electoral Impact of the
Fifth Periodical Reviews by the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions for
England and Wales, Political Quarterly, 79, 1, 2008, pp.80-90.
Peer-reviewed journal aimed at both academics and practitioners. Impact
Factor: 0.605 ISI Journal Citation Reports Ranking, 2012, 84/157
Details of the impact
The British Local Elections Database, its continual updating, and the
ability to trace trends over time has been pivotal in enhancing media
coverage and public discussion of both national and local elections, and
in influencing policy on electoral matters.
The availability of the data was first flagged in monthly articles
written by Rallings and Thrasher in Local Government
Chronicle from 1984 onwards. These discussed individual local
election results and their wider significance. The potential of such data
in contributing to the national level benchmarking and forecasting of the
annual local elections was recognised, inter alia, by the Sunday Times,
which began commissioning election commentary from Rallings and Thrasher
As part of this commentary the database was used by us to devise an
exclusive measure of what any given local election result implies for the
overall popularity of the various political parties. This `national
equivalent vote' is effectively an estimate of the national vote share,
but based on real election results rather than the expressed views of
opinion poll respondents. `These forecasts have proved their accuracy over
a period of more than twenty years and The Sunday Times has been
delighted to be able to give its readers this unique insight which
complements its conventional opinion poll-based election coverage.'
The `national equivalent vote' has become a standard way of reporting on
and interpreting local election results. It is widely quoted across the
media and acts as a marker against which commentators and the public can
measure and judge the claims and ambitions of the political parties. In
2011, 2012 and 2013 Rallings and Thrasher's local projections were covered
in the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, Evening
Standard, Daily Mirror, and the Sun as well as by the
Sunday Times and formed the basis of well-attended briefings for
journalists organised by the Political Studies Association at the
Institute of Government. (Reference 6)
Post-election the `national equivalent vote' calculation is widely
featured in assessments of how the parties have performed and is used by
the House of Commons Library as a quasi-official summary indicator of each
year's election outcome. `The Elections Centre at Plymouth University
provides unique analyses of local elections which we use in connection
with our work for Members of Parliament...There is great value in having
the up to date and consistent time series'. (References 3 and 7)
At a more micro-level the database and forecasting research provides the
raw material for and underpins both the BBC's and Sky News' election night
results programmes. `It allows us to bring viewers and listeners early and
authoritative estimates of the outcome of the elections even when only a
few results are to hand.' (References 1 and 8)
For the new parliamentary boundaries which came into force at both the
1997 and 2010 general elections, the Centre used a specially devised
formula based on ward level local election data drawn from the database to
calculate the likely partisan consequences of boundary changes for a media
consortium comprising the BBC, ITN, Sky News and the Press Association.
These were accepted as the `official' notional results and used and cited
in general election coverage across five continents. Without such notional
results `we would not be able to sustain election night programmes in
those instances with anything like the content viewers have come to
expect.' (References 1 and 7)
The British Local Elections Database has also contributed to public
policy on elections and election reform. Since 2001 it has been a key
source of information for the Electoral Commission. `The Commission highly
values the data gathered and methodology developed by the Elections Centre
at Plymouth University which has been crucial in enabling it to build a
record of election outcomes for use in its own policy and best practice
work. For example, our understanding of patterns of turnout, the increase
in and use of absent votes, and the variance in practice among local
authorities relies heavily on research undertaken by the Elections
Centre.' (References 5 and 10)
Similarly for the Local Government Association, `the unique set of local
election results data from the Elections Centre, as well as their
guidance, is crucial for managing the LGA board structure in a way that
properly reflects how votes were cast by the electorate...This provides a
valuable service to councils' (Reference 4).
The overall impact of the Centre's work in recent years was summarised in
an editorial in The Guardian in May 2013 entitled "In praise of Rallings
and Thrasher". It describes how `the duo's meticulous year- round
tracking of ward byelections...is the only way in which the polls that so
obsess Westminster can be checked against real votes. By faithfully
mapping wards for so long, they can interpret what boundary changes mean
for national elections too, a mix of art and science in which they have a
distinguished record...(and which has) done more than most to illuminate
British democracy' (Reference 9).
Sources to corroborate the impact
1. Statement from Editor, Political Research, BBC. January 2013.
Refers to the pivotal role played by data from the Elections Centre in the
BBC's annual local elections programming, and by calculations of notional
results in new constituencies for general election coverage following
parliamentary boundary changes.
2. Statement from Assistant Editor, Sunday Times. January 2013.
Comments on The Sunday Times' use of the Centre's forecasts over a period
of twenty years to offer readers unique snapshots of patterns of political
support at both local and general elections.
3. Head of Social and General Statistics, House of Commons Library.
January 2013. Attests to the Centre's unique data collection and
analyses in providing information for MPs, and in informing the production
of HoC Library briefing papers publicly available to download. See also
4. Research and Information Manager, Local Government Association.
January 2013. Refers to the role of the Centre's data and guidance
in deciding the party political distribution of LGA Board and committee
places, and to the Centre's data on election turnout being made available
to councils through the LGA's own website.
5. Research and Evaluation Manager, Electoral Commission. February
2013. Highlights the Commission's reliance on the Centre's work for
understanding and developing policy in areas such as absent voting and the
variance in practice among local authorities.
Discussion by the Independent's Political Editor of benchmarking of each party's
potential gains and losses in 2011 as outlined by the Plymouth Elections
papers/SN05280 References to Centre's work as authoritative source
for both `national equivalent vote' series and local election results, and
uses Centre's notional results to explain the psephological background to
the 2010 general election.
Explains the role of the Centre as `acknowledged experts in this field' in
providing notional results for wards where boundary changes have taken
place to enable the accurate calculation of gains and losses in 2013.
Editorial on value of work of Elections Centre over a 30-year period.
commissioned in 2009 to analyse and discuss impact of Electoral
Administration Act 2006 on the verification and rejection of postal votes.