The UK is a representative democracy. This means that we elect officials to represent us and make decisions on our behalf. We elect MPs to represent us in Parliament, councillors to represent us in our local councils and MEPs to represent us in the European Parliament. In Scotland and Wales citizens elect MSPs and AMs to represent them in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In many cities, Mayors are elected too.
In a direct democracy (such as the one which operated in ancient Athens) citizens voted on every issue which concerned them. This is considered unworkable in modern states and only really continues to exist in a few places, township meetings in New England for example. It does, however, remain in the form of the referendum and other forms of direct or popular democracy.
Democracy – system of government based upon consent and the will of the people. May be direct (Self governance/self rule (Athens, Paris Commune), or more often Representative (Representative bodies, fair and free regular elections, element of competition between parties and policies)
Direct Democracy – see above. Also Referenda (Devolution, AV, Elected Mayors, Scottish Independence, Brexit Referendum, June 2016 etc). Also involves recall, initiatives. Used widely in the USA at state level and Switzerland. Impractical to have genuine direct democracy in modern political systems with large population – therefore Rep. Dem may be supplemented with devices of DD. No separate class of professional politicians. Self governance.
Representative Democracy – Representative democracy is type of democracy where there are fair, free & regular elections to a range of representative bodies. (Westminster HOC, Local Authorities, Devolved Parliaments and Assembles, Directly elected Mayors, The European Parliament). Under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act (2011) elections to the Westminster Parliament (House of Commons) must take place every 5 years. The last such election took place in May 2015. Elections are Based on near universal suffrage, where there a few exceptions to the right to vote (Under 18, prisoners, Peers in General Elections). Elections also take place to other representative bodies including the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies (Last elections in 2016) or the European Parliament (Last elections in 2014). There are also a range of different electoral systems (FPTP, AMS, STV) to produce different balances of representation. Representative democracy involves participation which is Limited, infrequent and brief. Elections provide peaceful means of transition between governments.
Liberal Democracy – both LIBERAL & DEMOCRATIC FEATURES. Democratic features as per above. LIBERAL FEATURES. Distribution of power and party competition, constitutional checks and balances, rule of law, tolerance, pluralism and diversity, free press, civil liberties and freedoms. (Human Rights Act, 1998)
Parliamentary Democracy – regular fair and free elections to a representative body in this case parliament and specifically the HOC; rests upon notions of popular consent, electoral legitimacy, strong MP constituency link and provides a balance between elite professional rule and popular participation. Parliament is said to represent the balance of opinion in the country following an election. Parliament has sovereign powers but there are also checks, balances and constraints placed upon it. Government is drawn from parliament and accountable to it.
Democratic Legitimacy – lawful exercise of power based on ‘right’ to exercise power. Based on rule of law and is a crucial source of political stability. Usually conferred by election and the securing of a mandate (popular consent). Could be conferred by constitutional legitimacy. E.G. Brown replacing Blair (2007) Major replacing Thatcher (1990) or May replacing Cameron (2016). Constitutionally this is legitimate without an election in the British System of Government. Legitimacy is subject to continuous or periodic consent e.g. fixed elections and there is a debate as to whether Theresa May has a mandate (and therefore the legitimacy) to take the UK out of the single market.
Mandate – permission or legitimacy to govern. Usually secured via election and popular consent. Manifesto commitments are seen to be given a mandate when the party proposing them gains a parliamentary majority. Mandate may come into question under minority governments, coalition, confidence and supply arrangements or informal agreements between parties when their is no overall majority. Mandate is assumed through clear decisive majority in parliament and plurality of the vote. A Party does not require 50% support of the electorate to claim a mandate. (NB – no party since the war has achieved 50 of the popular vote.
Referendum – popular vote on a YES/NO basis on some binary issue such as Scottish Independence or the IN/OUT referendum on the EU. These are Single issue and require an Act of Parliament to be held – e.g, Scotland and Wales (Referendums) Act 1997 or the European Union Referendum Act 2015. Referendums are advisory rather than binding due to parliamentary sovereignty. Often low turnout (AV 41%, Wales Devolution 50.4%) but sometime high – GFPA 1998 (81%) or Scottish Independence (85%). Significant increase in the use of Referenda since 1997. Often held on issues of constitutional significance, but not always. May be used to settle internal party disputes (EEC under Wilson, 1975) (and now Cameron over Brexit 2016) or coalition differences (AV-2011) or disputes between regional government and central government (Scottish independence)
Recall – the process whereby a popular vote is held within a constituency to remove a sitting MP between elections. Recall of MPs Act 2015. This can take place where a sitting MP is imprisoned or suspended from sitting in parliament by the speaker for more than 21 days. A petition is raised in the MPs constituency and more than 10% of constituents must sign to trigger a by-election. The recalled MP can still take part in the by-election. Constituent trust over their elected representatives following the expenses scandal in 2009 appears to be the trigger for this reform. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Zac Goldsmith were particularly critical of the restrictive way in which government had enacted this legislation.
Democratic Deficit – a circumstance, or set of circumstances, in which democracy is seen to be failing. There are many aspects of the UK’s system which could be said to amount to a democratic deficit. Unelected HOL; FPTP*; Apathy and low turnout; lack of political education and understanding; remote and unaccountable EU and domestic political institutions; Absence of difference between the parties; Social representation of women and ethnic minorities in parliament and cabinet, the civil service and the judiciary; Corruption in high office; biased media/judiciary; Unelected Head of State; Insider PG dominance and corporate dominance over Government (Monbiot – Captive State – The Corporate takeover of Britain, 2000).
*Note from 2015 GE UKIP 12.4% of vote, 1 seat, SNP 4.7 % 56 seats – is this not profoundly undemocratic? Also 63.1 % did not vote Conservative, yet they obtained a majority of 12 seats on 36.9% of the vote or just 24.4% of the electorate as a whole.
Simple Plurality – the general principle for electing MPs and forming governments. An MP does not need a majority of his/her constituents votes to be elected, merely more than any other single candidate. Similarly governments are often formed on the basis of a plurality of the vote e.g Conservatives 2015 GE, 36.9% – more than any other party but NOT a majority. FPTP then often translates this into a majority of seats.
Political participation – there are a number of modes of political participation. 1. Voting in elections to elect representatives to a variety of representative bodies. 2. Voting in a referendum. 3. Joining a pressure group and taking part in a range of pressure group activities. 4. Spontaneous participation. 5 Citizen Juries. 6. focus groups. 7. joining a political party, volunteering, canvassing, attending constituency meetings, participating in leadership elections.
Main features of the UK’s Democratic System
3 Ways to Improve Democracy
3 Ways to participate in democracy
3 strengths of representative democracy
Arguments in favour of lowering the voting age
Also note 58% turnout of 18-24 Olds in 2015 General Election, compared to 44% in 2005.
3 Arguments in favour of compulsory voting:
3 Circumstances in which referenda are held – See referenda notes above
3 ways to introduce digital democracy
This needs fleshing out with detail.
3 criticisms of representative democracy
See Democratic Deficit above… also note turnout at successive general elections 2001 59.4%, 2005, 61.4%, 2010 65.1% and 2015 66.1% (slight improvement from 2001 to 2015 but below the historic levels of the 50s and 60s)