AS Democracy and political participation
AS Democracy and political participation
Democracy and Political
A definition of Democracy
• Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in three
• Government of the People
• Government by the people
• Government for the people
• But what does this mean in the modern age?
Government of the people
• Standing for office and being elected is one way
• Modern democracies require people to actively participate via
voting, joining political parties or pressure groups and so forth.
• This is known as participatory democracy.
• In a modern democracy everyone has the opportunity to participate
• In some societies (Australia) there are legal penalties for not voting
and it is a legal requirement in there UK to return the voter
Government by the people
• People engage in making decisions which directly affect them.
• This would involve government consultation process e.g. currently
concerning the Scottish referendum question to be put to Scots, the
use of referendums…
• This is known as Direct democracy where people actively
participate in making decisions which affect them- constitutional
changes involving devolution, the proposed changes to the
electoral system for Westminster, on directly elected local mayors
and the first election of police commissioners (November 2012)
have all been put to referenda- notably the AV referendum and the
later one on Scottish independence are binding (plebiscite) rather
Government for the People
• Those who govern do so in the broad interests
of the people rather than of themselves...
• The interests and needs of all sections of society
, as far as possible, should be considered
• Given the impracticality of making all decisions
via a process of direct democracy, decisions are
made by representatives hence representative
Origins are in C5BC Greece but disappeared until the 18th century. It has become
the preferred mode of governance of the most economically advanced states…
Democracy establishes and protects freedom via political inclusion of all classes
in the electorate, the establishment of a codified constitution which limits government
power and establishes basic individual rights
Democracy protects minorities All groups must have access to the political
process, the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) warned against the
tyranny of the majority
Democracy controls government power. Power tends to corrupt and there is the
danger that those in power will accrue more power and govern in their own interests.
Hence democracy ensures accountability via elections a recognised and legal
opposition, free media etc…
Democracy encourages political participation People must have the opportunity
to be informed and be involved in influencing decision making, hence crucial in
Democracy disperses power Where power is excessively concentrated in the
hands of a narrow elite democracy cannot flourish. It should be widely dispersed
among people and non governmental associations in what is called civil society
Societies where democracy
Those governed by a strict religious code where there is far less room for alternative
Cultures where people do not expect or desire personal liberty- in some Islamic
states most aspects of life are governed by the teachings of the prophet Mohammed
and the Koran. Islamic governments see it as their duty to oversee the moral and
social principles of the Koran.
In times of crisis, aspects of democracy have been suspended in the face of the
national emergency- war powers of the UK government in two World wars. Also
consider the anti terror legislation in the wake of 9/11 with the introduction of indefinite
detainment of suspected foreign nationals and later the introduction of control orders.
In some states such as Tanzania and Zambia, one party states were introduced as a
means of tackling problems of economic development
Many democrats however have said that democratic principles can never be
sacrificed under any circumstances- Nelson Mandela said people would prefer to be
free than well fed.
Citizenship- An individual has the right to live within a particular state
and has certain rights but also obligations- these vary e.g. some states
require military service- Turkey, Greece, Iran and Israel for example
• Obey the law
• Accept legitimacy of the
• Pay taxes
Reside within that state
To vote in free elections
Stand for office
Equality before the law
Active citizenship- concept introduced by New
Labour 1997 –informed by communitarian thinking
• Obligations in return
• Adoption of the European
Convention of Human Rights
as the first formal codification
of civil rights in the UK (Human
• Sign up to the Social Chapter
of the 1993 Maastricht treaty
which guaranteed employment
• Freedom of Information Act
• Active citizen should be aware
of political issues and vote in
• Be involved in promotion of
issues in which they are
• Be involved in community
action- voluntary work, help in
• Join and be active in a political
Evidence for a decline in political
Falling turnout in elections from
76% 1979 to 65.2% 2010 with 59.4%
2005 (lowest since the Coupon
Election 1918). These figures are for
general elections, turnout for local
elections far lower.
Decline in party membership from
4.12% electorate 1980 to 0.94% 2008.
Partisan dealignment- people identify
less and less with a particular party
On the other hand…
Pressure group membership is
There is a perceived crisis of political
participation. An inactive citizenry can
lead to autocratic and arbitrary
Popular involvement in direct
political action- 1990 poll tax riots.
2003-4 the Countryside Alliance
mustered 300 000 to demonstrate
against proposed ban on Hunting
2003 over 1m protest against Iraq
The role of the internet and social
media a vital means of mass
communication and mobilisation
(clitivists) protests following the
Iranian presidential election
How can political participation be
Compulsory voting- does it make citizens more aware and give them ownership of
outcome of elections? Is it an infringement of civil liberty? An option is to include on
the ballot options such as refusal to vote, don’t know or none of the above…
Lower the voting age to 16. Scottish teacher unions want this for the referendum
on independence. Are they experienced or switched on enough? However 16 year
olds can be required to pay tax therefore should they not have the right? People
who join armed forces at 16 get the vote.
Making voting easier- extend the period of voting, placing ballot stations in more
accessible places such as supermarkets, electronic voting- however this does raise
Compulsory citizenship lessons- but another form of PSHE. Only applies to the
Electoral reform- introduce alternative electoral system which more fairly reflects
national mood but AV referendum was defeated in the 2011 referendum.
Use of the internet- government can involve people by internet polls. E petitioningany proposal for a new law which has 100 000 signatures will be debated in
Greater use of referendums including the innovation 2011 of the binding
referendum. However, what if turnout low e.g. 1997 Welsh devolution referendum
passed on a low turnout.
How the UK is becoming more of a
• Coalition Government invited public participation
in deciding how public expenditure might be
• Many local authorities consult on how to allocate
expenditure on services
• After 2007 Downing street developed a system
of e-petitions whereby the PM office respond to
email campaigns on an issue which attract
significant public support- 2007 1.8m signed up
on an e-petition opposing scheme for road
• Use of referendums
Referendums and Initiatives
A referendum is…
Parliament and government decide to hold one. Until 2011 in the UK they have always been
advisory but a binding referendum was introduced for the issue of reform of the Westminster
elections. Normally a simple Yes or No but in 1997 Scotland a two question proposal- Scottish
parliament and secondly with tax raising powers. The SNP government want a two question
proposal for independence referendum in 2014- Independence or DEVOMAX.
In the UK until 2011, all referendums were advisory (Parliamentary sovereignty) and the
government could ignore a vote for change on the basis that the turnout was too low. In
the 1979 devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales the Yes vote had to be 40% of the
electorate, although the vote was carried in Scotland, the government rejected it on basis
the turnout was very low (Scottish wet weather). However, the Welsh devolution
referendum 1997 was carried on a low turnout. Increasingly, governments have accepted
An initiative is…
A referendum which is called for by the people. In some states of the USA there is a set
procedure for this. A minimum number of genuine signatures required for the process to go
ahead- in California, for example, an amendment to the state constitution signatures equivalent
to 8% of the votes in last election for state governor. Within the UK there are groups calling for
referendum on the UK membership of the European Union e.g. People’s Voice
Reasons for referendums are…
In the UK referendums tend to be held on constitutional matters. Increasingly, there is the belief
that such changes which affect the governance of the UK should be based on popular approval,
the latter also has the effect of entrenching change. The first such referendum held in the UK was
in Northern Ireland when the electorate was asked whether the Province should remain part of the
Parties and governments may be split on an issue- the first nationwide referendum in the UK on
continued membership of the EEC was because the Labour Government of Harold Wilson was
divided and ministers campaigned openly either for or against continued membership. A similar
situation happened in 2011 with the campaign for electoral reform with Liberal and Conservative
ministers polarising on the issue along partisan lines.
Political pressure- 1979 an unenthusiastic Labour Government (minority) dependent on Liberal
votes in Parliament agreed to hold referendums on devolution, similarly 2010 the Coalition
Agreement committed the Conservatives to passing legislation to establish a referendum on AV.
Growing belief that change in a local area should be based on the wishes of the local electorate.
2004 referendum on setting up devolved assembly in North East (70%+ no vote on 29% turnout)
caused the government to drop an unpopular policy of rolling devolution in England. Also the no
vote in all but one of the referendums on directly elected mayors in English cities 2012.
Interestingly, the devolution act for Scotland established in law the principle of Claim of Right by
which was established the principle of popular sovereignty in Scotland- only the Scottish people
via a referendum could alter the way in which Scotland was governed and its status within or
outside of the UK.
For and against referendums
A form of direct democracy- it helps to make decisions
legitimate and is in line with the principle of government by
It secures consensus. The Good Friday Agreement 1998 to
end sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland was only ever likely
to last if it had widespread support across both religious
communities. The 1973 referendum was ineffective in
achieving this as the majority of the Nationalist Community
abstained and the Troubles continued.
They can prevent governments making unpopular decisionsthe massive no vote in the North East referendum 2004.
As a way of resolving an issue when the government or party
is divided on the issue- 1975 EEC referendum and the 2011
referendum on AV.
A referendum entrenches constitutional changes- the AV
referendum and the 2014 referendum on Scottish
independence will be binding. The claim of right established in
1997 (Scotland) and the GFA which established joint
sovereignty over Northern Ireland (Irish Republic and
On some issues the proposals for change are too momentous
not to be put to a referendum- the adoption or not of the
European Single currency being the prime issue.
Excessive use of referendums will lead to a loss of respect for
elected representatives and institutions
Many issues are simply too complex and the tendency for
issues to be over simplified by the Yes/No campaigns in their
efforts to whip up support- Nationalist parties which want
devolution or in the case of Scotland independence exploit
populist history e.g. SNP independence broadcast with
references to Mel Gibson’s Brave heart to the strings of
Referendum campaigns are massively expensive- according
to the Daily Telegraph the AV referendum £80m a figure which
had to be met by local councils. Also there can be an
imbalance in financial support- 1975 EEC campaign had
backing of most businesses.
People might use a referendum to show dissatisfaction with
the government of the day- did this influence the decisive No
vote in 2004 in the North East? It would be irrational if the UK
were to decide whether or not to adopt the EURO on the basis
of a referendum vote largely reflecting the popularity of the
government of the day.
Low turnouts undermine the legitimacy of the decision- Wales
1997 only 50.1% of the electorate voted on proposal for an
assembly and the vote was split 50.3% yes and 49.9% no. In
2011 on whether the Assembly should be granted primary
legislative powers- the vote was carried on a turnout of 35%.
The tyranny of the majority. Most issues cannot be resolved
by a simple response yes or no. Elected representatives are
in a position to modify decisions to take into account minorities
Why did representative democracy
• Democratic spirit began to spread across
Europe and America C17-C19…
• States were larger and more complex than those
of Ancient Greece and so direct democracy not a
• Political philosophers objected to direct
democracy on the following grounds…
• -Most people were illiterate or poorly educated.
• -The tyranny of the majority especially as it
would leave power in the hands of the poor.
Representative democracy is where The
mass of the people are represented by a
minority of office holders
Burkean representation- C18 Whig MP but seen as the founding father
of modern conservative philosophy. In his address to his constituents at
Bristol explained his role to use his judgement in the best interests of his
constituents not to merely follow instructions- he was not a delegate.
Parliamentary representation- Here representatives are expected to strike
a balance between their own judgment, stated policies of the party and the
interests of their constituents.
Party delegation- the growth of party discipline- MPs are expected to follow
the party line. It could be argued that voters elect MPs on basis of party
manifesto and not on qualities of a particular candidate. However since
1970, there has been a progressive loosening of such discipline. The
present Coalition government experiences regular rebellions- over 50% of
the parliamentary Liberal Democrats voting against increases in university
tuition fees. The Coalition Government is based on a post election coalition
agreement and not on a particular manifesto. The problem for the Liberal
Democrats was that they had campaigned in 2010 against university fees in
the first place.
What are the main features of
Parliamentary Democracy in the UK?
Parliament is the source of political authority government action has to be
sanctioned by Parliament.
All members of the government are also members of either the House of
Commons or the Lords (Parliamentary government) this ensures face to
face accountability to Parliament.
All proposals must be submitted to Parliament for approval and only
Parliament can sanction the raising and spending of public funds (financial
resolution) and ministers must account for their actions to Parliament.
All citizens are represented by an MP whose interests and views should be
taken into account- constituents have the right to lobby their MP either in
Parliament or via letter or via their constituency surgeries.
The guardian of the electoral mandate by which the government in power
was elected into office. Parliament has a duty to ensure that the
government of the day does not seek to step outside or beyond its
mandate.. However, the formation of a Coalition based on a post election
deal undermines this.
Factors which promote and undermine representative
democracy in the UK
Elected officials represent a constituency
and are expected to represent the interests
of the constituency as a whole.
Parliament is expected to some extent to act
as a representative cross section of society
as a whole- when debates and committee
hearings take place peers and MPs express
what they believe to be the views and
interests of various sections of the
The days when labour represent the working
class and the Conservatives the middle
class are gone- all mainstream parties claim
to represent the whole nation
As faith in parties declined membership in
pressure groups has increased- they are
seen as more effective vehicles for the
demands and views of the electorate.
Media especially the newspapers represent
the general public leaders pay far more
attention to the press as it is widely believed
that newspapers do have influence.
The Houses of Parliament are not socially
representative. Whereas women are 51% of
the population only 22% of the MPs and
21% of the peers are. Ethnic minorities are
8% of the population but only 4% of the
membership of either House is one.
Although less than a 1/3 of the population is
university educated around 90% of
Direct and representative
Elected representatives may use
superior knowledge and judgement
and avoids hasty and emotional
decisions by the people.
Representatives mediate between the
interests of different sections of society
whereas direct democracy is the will of
the majority and minorities are
Issues especially those involving
conflicting interests are needing
complex solutions whereas direct
democracy simplifies questions and
Popular demands are often incoherent
and illogical whereas representative
democracy can make better sense of
these and convert into practical
Purest form of democracy.
People are better educated and
informed than in the past and therefore
able to be involved in crucial decisions.
There is a decline in faith in parties
and representative institutions.
An increasing proportion of key
political issues is being resolved by
either pressure group activity or via
It avoids decisions being made in the
interests of the representatives.
Key features of a liberal democracy
• Accountable government (to the people)
• Free and fair elections
• Peaceful orderly transfer of power from
one government to the next
• Information is freely available to the
• Protection for rights and liberties
• Toleration of diverse beliefs, opinions,
cultures and lifestyles.
Is the UK a Liberal Democracy?
Accountability- ministers must account for actions to Parliament.
Parliament scrutinises bills and via select committees the work of
Free and fair elections. Independent Electoral Commission to ensure
honest elections which are free from corruption. All adults (non
prisoners) have the right to vote and stand for office unless
Legitimacy and the transfer of power- High degree of acceptance of
results and little or no violence in the elections.
Information- the UK has a free press and free broadcasting. The
Freedom of Information Act has extended accountability of
government and public bodies.
Rights and Liberties- UK has signed up to the ECHR and the Social
Chapter of the European Union (Maastricht Treaty). First codification
of British rights in the HRA. An independent judiciary which via
judicial activism has challenged the state for attempting to deprive
rights of individuals. Judges can apply the principle of ultra vires,
often in judicial review which overrules an action of a minister or the
government on the grounds that they have exceeded their powers
and abused civil liberties.
Limited Government- Parliament has a good record of restraining the
executive- 2005 the House of Commons rejected the government
from extending imprisonment without charge of suspected terrorists
to 90 days without trail.
Tolerance- UK is known abroad as a tolerant nation. As long as they
have not challenged the legitimacy of government, the law and
security of the state they are accepted. Multiculturalist policies such
as legal exemptions for Sikhs and crash helmets, Kosher and halal
butchers, recognition of sharia and beth din courts for dealing with
religious issues such as Jewish/Muslim divorce etc… Also
legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting males 1966,
and lowering the age of homosexual sex between men to 16, legal
recognition of same sex civil partnerships, the gay marriage bill.
Important here is the public support of the Conservative Prime
Minister to endorsing gay marriage I do not support gay marriage
in spite of being a Conservative I support gay marriage because
I am a Conservative
Accountability- Parliament lacks sufficient time to assess government
bills, operation of the guillotine via government control of the
parliamentary timetable, government majority on parliamentary
Free and fair elections. Concerns over corruption in postal voting.
Also reduction in number of constituencies and redrawing of
electoral boundaries will favour the Conservatives. Also is FPTP a
fair system? The role of safe seats. C80% votes ineffective as a
result. The ECHR has deemed the blanket ban on prisoners from
voting in the UK is unacceptable and has rejected the UK’s
opposition on appeal
Rights and Liberties- The HRA is not entrenched. The principle of
derogation by which the government with parliamentary approval
may suspend parts of the HRA in the interests of national security.
The use of anti terror measures by local authorities to spy on citizens
on non national security matters- dog poo and on parents claiming to
reside in the vicinity of a popular school.
Limited Government- There is no written constitution which sets clear
limits to government power. Prerogative (crown prerogative ) powers
exercised by the Prime Minister are not subject to parliamentary
control or approval.
Tolerance- Growing terrorist threat, increased incidence of
immigration and asylum seeking have caused strains. Note the
success of BNP, albeit short-lived, to secure council seats. Note also
the rise of intolerant fundamentalist groups opposing pluralist values
of a liberal and increasingly secular society. Note also the strains
within the Conservative Party over the same sex marriage bill. Note
also that in a liberal democracy liberalism absolutises liberalismonly those cultural practices which are compatible with human rights
can be tolerated- hence the commitment by the government to outlaw