The man who transformed the study of elections

If Cambridge had had a politics department in the 1960s, I might never have become a pollster. In those days, it did not really regard politics as a proper subject at all, merely a minor component of a degree in economics, the subject I was studying. And because it lacked its own experts in British politics, it had to import them from other universities. Which is how I came to meet David Butler, Britain’s pre-eminent chronicler and analyst of elections, who died last week at the age of 98.

Each Friday morning in my first term he drove over from Oxford to deliver two lectures, from 9 to 10am, and from 11 until noon, before driving back. The lectures, delivered without notes, were mesmerising. A little theory, plenty of anecdotes and great insight into the human realities of the way politics actually worked. 

Even more valuable was the hour between David’s lectures. He would go to the “buttery”, a canteen on the faculty site. A small group of us would join him and he would do what, as I came to know later in his life, he loved doing most: talking, guiding and gossiping with students. 

One particular remark stays with me 56 years later. It was advice he handed down to us from his father: never get into an argument about facts that can be verified; look them up. I feasted on that glorious three-hour Friday morning sandwich, with the hour in the middle providing the most delectable filling. For the rest of my undergraduate days I coped with, and occasionally enjoyed, the economics course. But that time with David had the greatest influence. I wanted to be part of the world of politics, elections and number-crunching.

Luckily for me, our paths frequently crossed. We became friends, and I came to understand quite what a pioneer he was. At the end of the Second World War, in which he served as a tank commander, he was in one of the occupying forces following Germany’s surrender. When the first postwar election was called back in Britain, the army wanted their far-flung troops to have some understanding of the choice before them. David was invited to talk to his fellow soldiers. In different sessions he spoke about social security and “the structure of politics”. He also played both the Labour and Conservative candidates in a mock election, setting out their policies. How did David vote? He didn’t. At 20, he was still too young. Mind you, in later years he never said how he voted: he wanted his reputation for objectivity unsullied by public indications of his party preference.

Back in Oxford he resumed his studies. It was while he was still a second-year undergraduate that he started to transform the way we understand elections. Nuffield College agreed to fund a book that would analyse the 1945 election. David was commissioned to write a statistical analysis of the results. He divided Britain into small groups of seats, calculated the percentages support for each party and how these had changed since the previous election 10 years earlier. David would later insist that he did not invent the idea of swing; and that the concept of percentages was ancient. But they had never been applied systematically to general elections before. Butler’s appendices have informed the way we have analysed elections ever since. Swings and percentages are the very foundations of every election night—and not just in Britain.

The book was the first of a series, “The British General Election of…” that is still going. David again wrote the appendix for the book on the 1950 election, and after that wrote or co-authored every book from 1951 to 2005, when he was 81. His final contribution to the series was his foreword to the 2010 election book, 65 years after he dissected the statistics underpinning Clement Attlee’s landslide.

Political afficionados know that David’s career covered far more than his books and TV and radio appearances around general elections. He wrote extensively about competitive politics, public opinion, voting systems and constitutions. It was the wiring of democracy that fascinated him, more than the policies enacted by the winners. Perhaps his most significant book was Political Change in Britain, written jointly with Donald Stokes of Princeton University. This explored how different groups of voters decided which party to support, and how the character of the electorate changes through time. In 2010, his peers, the academics of the Political Studies Association, awarded Political Change the accolade of the best book about politics in the previous 60 years.

But this does not mean David was a mere technician. He was passionate about the importance of democracy—the cause for which he had fought in the Second World War. His ability to attract eminent politicians from all parties over many years to Friday afternoon seminars at Nuffield College testifies to the respect in which he was held.

A few years ago, during the period when three general elections were held in quick succession, and generated far more heat than light, I asked David which election he thought had been the best advertisement for a mature democracy. Without hesitation he said 1959. This was when Harold Macmillan, the Conservative prime minister, faced Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell. David described them as serious men who respected each other and who believed in the importance of civilised discourse. 

David lived long enough to see his techniques for analysing elections adopted round the world. The practice of honest and respectful politics, which meant so much to him, has not done so well.