The Census: why it matters

The UK Census is a well-established national data gathering tool, which is then used for many different analyses, but there are some gaps in what it covers. Consultation is underway on the Census 2021. The closing date for responses to the Census Consultation is Thursday 27 August.

2021 Census director, Ian Cope, says: “Information based on census data is heavily used to improve decision-making by local and central government, the health and education sectors, businesses, and by community and voluntary bodies. Of course society changes in the 10 years between each census, so we’re asking you to tell us what information you will need in 2021.

Newcastle University statistician, Tom King, explains the importance of the Census and why having your say in the topics which it surveys is vital to understanding who and what matters in society.


Census 2021: Consultation

Census has a particular importance in the public engagement with our society and how it is structured. It goes to very single household, and seeks to classify aspects of our society into groups. In this way, it can shape our understanding of our own society, and what is important to our society. In many ways it is the basis for societal planning for a whole decade, as it is the only source of detailed information.

For many groups, getting a question in the census to recognise their status is of profound importance. While what is measured gets done, when something is not measured it may not be known to exist at all. Census figures form the basis of all government activity, so any further information has to come from other sources, which only more specialised groups will access. This means the consultation for census topics is always hotly contested, and many more topics are proposed than can be surveyed.

Timeline for Consultation

It may seem strange that the census is running its consultation for topics to be surveyed in 2021 six years ahead of time. But this is because it is such a huge project, often being compared to a military campaign in its scale. It also follows a rigorous testing process, so that as well as typical questionnaire development, there is also a full scale census test run two years in advance to evaluate operational processes and new questions.

Census is different to other surveys in the UK, with a statutory requirement for householders to make a census return or face a fine. The questionnaire itself is approved by parliament, another stage in the long development process.

This is not necessarily a rubber stamp, with the question on religion being introduced by parliament at this stage.

This question is framed as optional, not a caveat the statisticians were allowed, but one which was repeated in 2011.

Background to the Census

When national censuses was originally conducted, typically beginning in the 19th century, they were the only systematic source of information on a country’s population. They relied on enumerators visiting every household on census day to record their details and this process continued into the 20th century due to popular illiteracy. Census has changed, with self-completion forms and by introducing usual or ‘de jure’ residence to replace the original ‘de facto’ qualification which caused many strange anomalies.

The statistical approach has also changed and the census sits within a portfolio of detailed surveys collected by the National Statistics Office. This reflects a need for more detailed information on some issues, such as crime, and the introduction of statistical sampling of households which required a register of addresses. There are also follow up surveys to test the coverage and accuracy of the data, trying to identify who may have been missed or misclassified.

CEnsus 2

Who is included in the Census?

It is confusing to many people to describe the problem of people being missing from the census. Certainly as the number missing (around 6%) is nowhere near the number of people fined. But at 94% census has a higher response rate than any other survey, and it is the only survey to capture some population groups, such as those living in large and secure communal establishments, and the homeless. Although the overall total is totemic, it is the local geographical detail which is important.

No other source of information tells us exactly how many people live in small areas with enough detail about them e.g. their age and sex, for this to be useful for demographic models. This is why the plans to shift to administrative data on which to base census enumeration are still in development. You may believe that the government knows everything about you but the fact is they don’t, and what they do know they don’t share, even for statistical purposes.

It is often pointed out that other countries have moved to an administrative system, but their data rely on population registers, and often unique ‘social security’ or similar numbers. Britain has none of these, and in fact the census goes out without assuming anything, admitting those who are irregular, or people who would prefer not to be the part of any system at all. More than that, we collect other information on the characteristics of our population, in a detail other countries envy.

These are the topics which are so hotly contested by societal groups, while the statisticians worry themselves much more about the missing people.

Government departments, and more local relations, are the source of many questions on economic activity and education, as well as the myriad questions on ethnicity. But it is the local people who see the consequences of what it is chosen to measure and how they are to be classified, and census can only take place by popular consent, as in the community exception to the human rights act.

At present, the framing of question about activity covers attending education, working and acting as a carer for someone. This excludes a large swathe of human activity, and discounts the activity of anyone who is retired, by recording no information on any voluntary role they may have. In the particular case of transport, this means that our only detailed transport data is around commuting patterns, because it is only main mode of travel to work which is queried.

Travel and Transport: An Example

Travel planning is aimed particularly at the stress on the transport network seen in the morning rush hour, when it is closest to capacity. But anyone who actually travels to work will have noticed the difference during school holidays which cannot entirely be due to commuters being away on holiday. Similarly, university towns will notice a difference in traffic patterns during the vacations, but this portion of commuting is not collected in the census, despite its obviously localised nature.

At the heart of the transport question is one of the main reasons for having a census which has yet to be addressed.

By linking two addresses, whether as main and second homes, or within country migration, or travel to work, we see data about the flow of people around our country. A survey cannot possibly achieve this due to the small numbers seen (hence the highly uncertain figures about migration) yet this tells us a lot about our society and how we are changing.

Census 3

There are many specific topics close to many hearts for which the census is not the right source. But the census does form a direct intrusion of how our society is classified on each of us, which we should be in control of. By introducing doubt into the minds of victims of sexual assault, police were able to reduce the number of people who believed there had been a crime. Similarly, by not seeing something which is an important feature of our lives in the census questionnaire can diminish our confidence in its importance.

An example from my own experience, is the use of the travel to work data in public consultations on transport plans in Newcastle. It is widely reported that only 1.7% of people cycle in Newcastle as a reason not to accommodate cyclists in redevelopments and reallocation of the road space. But this figure is from the census and includes only those commuting by bicycle as the longest part of their journey to work: the framing is that those are the only people who matter.

Students, at school, college or university are not counted, neither are those who travel by bicycle only part of the way and it also does not consider anyone who was unemployed at that time. This is strange if there is a local school in the area where development is proposed, but is particularly flawed in the context of the money being spent. The Cycle City Ambition Fund required bids from local authorities, and all the awards were made to university towns, but there is no data on how students travel to university.


Not everyone is comfortable reasoning with statistics, and the census is compelling in that way as it can be viewed as a true figure rather than an estimate. Students who might like to dispute the prevalence of cycling and advocate for students for equal consideration might turn to look for data to support them, but there isn’t any.

Embracing the use of simple evidence from the census into discussions in public consultation requires the data collected to reflect our society, or those not measured will not count.


Author: Tom King, is a statistician in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University. His research interests are public statistics and inference from longitudinal social data. Thus this incorporates communicating the relevance of social measurement, typically from large datasets. He is a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

If you would like to contribute to a response to the Consultation from Institute for Social Renewal, please contact

The Labour leadership election and the challenge to the style of modern party politics

Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Professor of Planning in Newcastle School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, argues in this NISR blog that more is at stake in the Labour leadership election than the future of the one party. What has been demonstrated by the leadership contest is that voters are troubled by the sameness of the political language employed, and that there is a call to be principled and hold your convictions closely, if you’re to win the trust of the British electorate.

Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity has emerged not necessarily because the grassroots Labour membership suddenly clamour for socialist polities (no doubt some do), but because of a twenty-year frustration with a political party that appears to have lost its principles and convictions.

Blairism moderated the party to make it electable, faced with a right wing political agenda that had reshaped the country and political attitudes. But the Blair-Brown era of Labour only served to react to a form of Conservatism; it played the tune already composed by neo-liberalism. When neo-liberalism was found wanting in the 2007-8 recession, the country expected and indeed demanded an ideological change. But, after 2008, the business-as-usual manifestation of all political parties seemed to jar with a country that, at its heart, still believed in conviction politics and principles.

Labour's future

Photo credit: Labour Party, available under a Flickr Creative Commons Licence. (

The political language of post-1994 is devoid of any meaning. It is the language of not only moderation and compromise but also of neutrality. The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all employ this non-speak: a never ending stream of platitudes that only hint at issues without stating a firm vision of course of action. Promises to be economically credible, to tackle poverty, to address climate change, to deal with immigration, to oppose tuition fees, to save our health service all sound fine as headlines, but dig deeper and the specific policies are often absent. And the electorate have realised this, particularly younger generations of voters. After all, how many of these promises have turned out to be false promises or else have masked opposite agendas? The Liberal Democrats paid the ultimate price in this regard at the 2015 General Election when their platitudes about tuition fees and protection of state services became hollow.

Furthermore, since politicians from all the major parties employ the same style of political speak, they all tend to sound the same. Outpourings of grief and tributes paid to deceased politicians such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn demonstrated not a fondness for socialism, but rather sadness for the demise of a type of politician that is increasingly rare in the 21st century. Blairism turned the language of moderation and neutrality into a fine art; we believed it for a time but eventually even supportive Labour members saw through the charade. Politics became dull because politicians and political parties tried to cover all the messy contradictory issues we need to face through a series of bland platitudes: if political parties appear to stand for everything, they are nothing.

Corbyn’s popularity has emerged at a particular moment in time because the public are fed up with the blandness of political language. They are fed up with the lack of conviction and principles in political debates. And they are irritated by the fact that the three main Westminster political parties sound the same on issues; there is now no choice. This is also perhaps the reason why the Scottish Nationalists have surged ahead in Scotland; they sound different, they celebrate their ideology, they set out the issues they support and oppose, and they are not afraid of being portrayed by the media in an unpopular light for doing so.

Viewing Corbyn’s popularity as a threat to Labour’s electoral chances misses the point completely. It’s not about a threat to Labour per se, but rather to what Labour has become over the last 30 years; a party that is bland, vague, devoid of ideology, too close to the Tories. Turning that around is not easy: those 30 years have given rise to a complete generation of Blairites both within the House of Commons and in the party apparatus. Their reactions to Corbyn’s rise in the opinion polls demonstrates that they have no armoury to deal with the surge because they only have one style of thinking: moderation, compromise and neutrality at all costs to be electorally successful. But Corbyn’s agenda is proving to be more electorally successful and is rather based on ideology, conviction and principle. The three other leadership contenders respond to the Corbyn ‘threat’ with the usual platitudes and blandness. No wonder they are not making much impact.

Jeremy Corbyn

Photo credit: Chris Beckett, available under a Flickr Creative Commons Licence. (

Does this mean that a split in the Labour Party is likely if Corbyn wins? Tentatively, the answer has to be yes, since some of the other leadership candidates have already stated that they would refuse to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet. Plus, post 1997, many in the Westminster Labour Party bubble are on the centre/right of the party. And on this issue, the right wing press cannot contain their delight with the prospect of a Labour Party tearing itself apart and putting pay to any prospect of it winning not just the 2020 General Election but possibly polls beyond that.

But let’s consider another scenario: what if Corbyn’s election as Labour leader galvanises political debate nationally, gives rise to conviction politics, and leads to a significant rise in the party’s standing in the opinion polls? What would those Labour members do who opposed Corbyn if his election makes Labour more credible as an alternative party of government than it currently is? Only time would reveal whether this would begin a honeymoon period for a new political leader or signal a more fundamental shift in British politics. It happened north of the border; could it happen in England and Wales? Not only would such a scenario rupture the present form of Labour Party thinking; it would begin to unravel the ‘sameness’ that has characterised party political thinking for the last 20 years. This may be healthy in any democracy but it would corrupt the compromising, middle ground, moderating agendas of post-Blairite Labour politics. It would not only rupture Labour; it would lead to a more significant series of divides emerging, between the north and south of the country, between cities and the countryside, and between those who support and oppose neo-liberalism.

That scenario may be too much to contemplate at the present time. But politicians from all parties are starting to realise that the Labour leadership election campaign could be about something much more than the future of Labour.

 Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones