Key Features of Referendums (Possible 5 marker)

- it is a public vote on a single issue, usually a yes/no answer.

- modern example of direct democracy 

-  they are ad hoc (occur when needed) and the government are able to set the timings and question.

- governments in the UK are not bound by the vote (could choose the alternative option)

- Example: leaving the EU referendum in the UK 2016.

1 of 20

Referendums vs Elections

Differences between the two:

1) Purpose: 

- Elections: Provide a mechanism to place officials in representative posts.

- Referendums: Does not secure representation of officials.

2) Concerned with?

- Elections: Provide a mechanism to secure a governement mandate on a variety of issues.

- Referendums: Normally concerned with a single issue and have a narrow remit.

3) Binding?

- Elections: Results are binding and final.

- Referendums: Results are seen as consultative.

2 of 20

Referendums vs Elections contd

4) When held?

- Elections: In the UK they must be held by law at set times (Fixed Term Election Act- one every 5 years)

- Referendums: Ad hoc, occur when needed.

5) Type of democracy

- Elections: Integral part in representative democracy.

- Referendums: Deriving from direct democracy.

3 of 20

Examples of Referendums

1997: Should Devolution be introduced in Scotland and Wales?

Scotland 74% YES on 60% turnout

Wales 50.3% YES on 50.1% turnout

2011: Should Britain change its voting system to the Alternative Vote?

68% NO on 41% turnout

2016: Should the UK remain part of the EU or leave the EU?

51.9% LEAVE on 72.2% turnout

4 of 20

Features of Direct Democracy

Possible 5 Marker.

- The people make the decisions, e.g. in a referendum.

- People are asked for their opinion regularly and have one vote each in order for decisions to be made.

- Proffessional Politicans do NOT exist under direct democracy.

- First began in Ancient Greece.

- Most commonly used today through referendums.

5 of 20

Representative Democracy

In a representative democracy:

- The people vote for representatives to make decisions on their behalf.

- The people do not make decisions but they delegate this responsibility to the representatives.

- Representative Assemblies are created and they should work for the will of the people. 

- Representatives with similar views group together and these become political parties.

- Pressure Groups are created to continue to the will of the people outside of Parliament. 

6 of 20

Pro's of Representative Democracy

- Politics affects us 24/7. We all have busy lives and there are many decisions to be made, as well as complex decisions e.g. the envrioment, foreign aid/affairs, finance and most people do not have time to be continually involved. Reps act on our behalf. 

- Our voting system allows us to vote for (or against) individual candidates, not just for a party. We can hold them to account for things they have / haven't done e.g. John Major / Tony Blair.

- Minority groups may be forgotten under direct democracy, reps can stand up for everyone and represent the ethnic diversity that now dominates the UK. 2017 election- 52 ethnic minority MPs elected. Allows decisions to be fairer and possess a greater sense of equality.

- Reps will be more rational and will not act in a short-term, emotional matter. E.G. Many voted leave in the EU Referendum because it was thought that leaving would be the best thing short-term. Having representatives allows decisions to be made on issues such as crime and funding for illnesses whilst thinking about the long-term effects. For example, legalising the use of marujana may encourage addiction in the future. 

7 of 20

Con's of Representative Democracy

- Can be difficult to hold our representatives to account between elections. As the Fixed Term Election Act states that an election must occur once every 5 years, it is hard for the public to hold elected officials to account for an action / actions which they do not agree with. Unless the Prime Minister calls a snap election which is particualrly unlikely as they do not want to hinder the possibility of being voted out of office. 

- Reps may suit themselves and not work on behalf of the people, many politicans are extremely career focused and follow the idea of "keep on climbing the greasy pole'. Means the public are not best represented and their views and wishes lack importance. 

- Representatives may simply disagree too much and require direct democracy, for example the EU Referendum was needed in order to resolve the split in the Conservative Party. Suggests that the concept of representative democracy is not working effectively. 

8 of 20

Advantages of Referendums

During referendum campaigns, a great deal of information is produced regarding the question that is being asked (EU, Scottish Independence etc.) The general public can become more educated as a result of a referendum. This greater education may also encourage participation in other forms of democracy, e.g. pressure groups, elections. The public are likely to feel that their views and opinions truly matter and will engage in politics more.

Referendums can help politicians make a decision. There may be issues that divide political parties and a referendum result gives a definite result and allows things to move on. The Conservative party were divided over the issue of EU membership for decades, but the EU referendum allowed a clear decision to be made. This implies that referendums are able to offer a final decision whilst also maintaining the wishes of the public. The government of the day can then act more effectively instead of still being undecided on a particular issue. 

They ultimately promote democracy and referendums are a method of checking the power of government. Government has huge power over Parliament (due to their majority) but is realistically less able to override public opinions demonstrated by a referendum result. Referendums stop over-mighty government. Enables politicans to be accountable to what the pubic wants as opposed to what decison may best benefit them and their career. 

9 of 20

Disadvantages of Referendums

The general public can often be ill-informed on complicated political matters. They may not always be able to see the long-term consequences of decisions and make emotional “snap” choices. They may also vote against the wishes of an individual politician they do not like (Clegg? Cameron?). Furthermore, if the public are wrongly educated e.g. the £350 million going to the NHS if we left the EU, the overall result will lack legitimatecy because the public have voted according to false information.

If referendums are held too regularly, it may result in voter apathy (boredom) and therefore lower turnout. If turnout decreases, it may undermine the legitimacy of the decisions and make them less valuable. E.G. Switzerland. This may also have a knock on effect on representative democracy as people may become disengaged and unwilling to participate. Undermines rather than promotes democracy.

Referendums may provide nothing more than a “snapshot” of public opinion at a particular time rather than providing a decision that is in the best long-term interests of the nation. This can be shown through the EU referendum where many thought that leaving would enable borders to be closed quickly and money to be directed to the NHS rather than the EU without realising that the EU enables us to cooperate with other states which will only become even more important as the world continues to globalise.

10 of 20

Improvements to UK Democracy

- More referendums

- Compulsory Voting

- Lowering the voting age

- Increased political education

- Digital Democracy

- Changing the voting system

- The Power of Recall

11 of 20

Compulsory Voting

Currently used in: Australia


- Increases turnout

- Forces people to think about politics, how their opinion matters and how their vote counts.

- Results possess more legitimacy, not one sided and all classes, ethnicities etc matter.


- Abuse's people freedom, may not want to enagage in politics and vote.

- Costly to enforce.

- Does not solve the problem of apathy, people may vote simply because they have to rather than because they want to. Might not be enagaged in politics enough in order for the results to possess legitimacy.

12 of 20

Lowering the Voting Age

Worked successfully in the Scottish referendum

Advantages: Makes the young more politically aware, this enables them to take this awareness through to later life.

- Much fairer, because young people can engage in many other activities e.g. sex, smoking, join the army, they should be able to vote on issues that will affect them e.g. tuition fees.

- Improves identifcation with politics, not just middle-aged and the older generation voting, young people are more enaged and feel like their opinion matters so will continue to maintain participation.


- 16 is too young, not adults yet and should therefore not have a say on what happens. Not educated enough to do so.

- May actually lower turnout, young people may not value the ability to vote.

- Party policies may become distorted, MPs may focus their manifesto's more on younger people whilst forgetting about other groups in society.

13 of 20

Digital Democracy

E-petitions have been a success.


- Greater access to politics, enables all groups to engage.

- May increase turnout (and legitimacy)

- Promotes a direct form of democracy


- Costly to introduce, will it be worth it?

- Those who do not have access to / know how to use technology may be excluded, e.g older people.

- Vulnerable to fraud and hacking.

14 of 20

Changing the Voting System


- Would be fairer for all parties, big parties cannot dominate and over ride the ability for smaller parties to do well.

- Reduces tactical / wasted votes, people think that their vote counts and

- Therefore the results will be more legitimate. 


- Could cause more coalitions, lack of stabiity and an effective government because they may not be able to agree on certain issues. 

- Does not necessarily mean that people will still be interested in politics. 

15 of 20

Improved political Education


- Increases overall political knowledge.

- Encourages engagement with politics.

- Links with lowering the voting age.


- Could be costly to introduce. 

- May not make any change to interest. 

16 of 20

Democratic deficit in the UK?

Definition: An insufficent level of democracy in political institutions and procedures. There is:

Declining turnouts at all levels of elections, 2001: turnout was only 59.4%, this questions how many people care about politics. If people aren't voting, politicans will stop caring about groups e.g. poor people as they are unlikely to vote which will only lead to a further sense of democratic deficit as groups aren't fairly represented.

- An unfair voting system which creates an ‘un-democratic’ outcome for Westminster elections. The number of votes that is cast for a party is not accurately reflected in the number of seats won. For example, in 2015 Lib Dems gained 8% but only 8 seats. UKIP gained 13% but only 1 seat, unequal relation between amount of votes and amount of seats, doesn't effectively reflect what the public wants.

Pressure groups with ‘elite’ status who may pursue narrow sectional interests which disadvantage the majority of the population. The government have the ability to prioritise the views of pressure groups that they know are widely supported and will gain themselves public support e.g. CBI whilst excluding smaller pressure groups in comparison to the Animal Liberation Front who's morals are respected but methods are not.

17 of 20

Democratic deficit in the UK?

There isn't:

Reforms have taken place to develop democracy such as devolution, brings power to the people by decentralising power from the Parliament. E.g. assemblies in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. Also allows rise to be given to certain nationalist parties e.g. SNP (won 56/59 seats in 2015 election). Devolution has enabled better representation of different groups and is fairer.

+ Increasing use of referendums, enables the people to make the decisions on important areas such as changing the voting system, devolved assemblies and leaving the EU. Referendums give power to the people and instead of giving elite individuals who may make decisions that best represent their views, the public's wishes are prioritised.

+ Widespread pressure group membership and activity ensure that there is no ‘democratic deficit’- allow people to have a say when elections are not taking place and put pressure on the goverment to change policies regarding their topic area. Many pressure groups consulted by the government (RSPCA, AA) and have a role in decision making, suggests the opinions of the public is valued.

18 of 20

Participation crisis in the UK?

There is a participation crisis:

- Party membership: Fewer than 1% of the public being part of a political party. This suggests that people are not engaged in politics or value the manifesto's of a political party enough to support one. 

- Voter turnout: Lowering party membership may also have a knock on effect on lower turnout. If people aren't supporting parties, they may be less bothered about voting. 2001- turnout was just 59.4%, dropped significantly since 1945 and 1997. Suggest that there is a participation crisis in the UK now more than ever. 

- Particular groups not voting, poor people in particular. Fewer than 50% of voters whom claimed to be on a very low income voted in the 2010 general election. This may be because they feel their social status is not accurately and fairly represented. This suggests that there may be a partipation crisis in certain groups in society rather than in the UK overall.

19 of 20

Participation crisis in the UK?


- Pressure Group membership- currently around 750 PGs in the UK, membership of them is clearly growing as people view them as a way of alternative way of participating in politics besides elections. Voter turnout doesn't mean that people aren't participating, just participating in other ways which may not be as visible. 

- Voter turnout- although it decreased after the 90's, it rose from 59% in 2001 to 65% in 2010. This suggests that although the UK may have previously suffered from a participation crisis, levels have since increased and people are still very much participating and engaged.

- Although certain groups aren't voting, turnout for referendums remain high. 72.2% for EU Referendum. Similar to pressure groups, referendums act as an alternative way to participate if groups such as poor people do not feel they are fairly represented through political parties manifestos, they can still participate and have their say in other areas.

20 of 20


No comments have yet been made

Similar Government & Politics resources:

See all Government & Politics resources »See all Democracy resources »