Democracy and Participation

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  • Created on: 11-04-19 14:53

Democracy and Participation

Democracy provides the basis for any modern state that claims to support ideals such as justice, equality and government by consent. 

It is a concept that has been in existence – in various forms – for thousands of years and yet remains as contested and disputed as ever.  

Central to understanding of democracy is the people – and the extent to which they are able to influence the decision-making process within a state. 


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Democracy and Participation

The Key Components of Democracy: 

  • Free and fair elections to provide legitimacy for the government and its activities. 
  • The tolerance of different opinions, viewpoints, parties and political groups and an independent media. 
  • Protection of the rights of citizens 




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Suffrage in the UK: Debates and Issues

How Suffrage has changed since the Great Reform Act (1832) to present:

  • For many centuries prior to 1832, only a tiny fraction of the population voted for individuals who represented them. 
  • The selection of the UK’s representative assembly lay in the hands of a very few – being the preserve of a wealthy, male and land-owning elite.
  • While the franchise has been extended significantly since then, the process to gain the right to vote has been a long and arduous one for many groups within society

  • In the UK today, all citizens over the age of 18 are allowed to vote in public, political elections (with the exception of a small number of individuals).

  • This entitlement is known as Universal Suffrage and is granted to 71.5% of the population.
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The Extension of the Franchise

The extension of the franchise in the UK began in the early 19thcentury. 

The Representation of the People Act (1832) – known as the Great Reform Act – enacted to ‘take effectual measures for correcting abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament.’ 

Such ‘abuses’ took many forms:  

  • Elections took place in ‘boroughs’ – the number of elections within them ranging from under 10 (rotten boroughs) to over 12,000.
  • Some boroughs were controlled by powerful local aristocrats – the Duke of Norfolk controlled the selection of MPs in up to 11 boroughs for many decades.
  • The qualifications to be entitled to vote varied widely from one region to another – though less than 4% of the population were eligible. 


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The Great Reform Act

The most significant changes brought under the Great Reform Act were to: 

  • Extend the franchise to around 800,000 people – or 1 in 5 male adults (around 6% of the population).
  • Create seats in the House of Commons to represent the cities that had begun to spring up as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace. 
  • Disband many of the ‘rotten’ boroughs by redrawing constituency boundaries. 


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Debates Regarding Gender, Class, Ethnicity and Age

Women and the Right to Vote 

The Representation of the People Act made women eligible to vote in UK-wide elections for the first time. 

The Act enfranchised women over the age of 30, as well as all men over the age of 21 – with the franchise being extended 10 years later to include all women over 21.

Even in 1918, there remained much debate about whether women. Should be enfranchised. 

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Debates Regarding Gender, Class, Ethnicity and Age

Women and the Right to Vote 

 At the time, arguments that women should not be given the right to vote included:

  • Many women did not want the right to vote, preferring to be represented in matters of national politics by their husbands or fathers.
  • Men and women played very different roles in society – evidenced by the fact that women had not fought to defend their country in the First World War.
  • The system ‘worked’: men were seen to have more interest and engagement with national issues while women focused on local affairs. 


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Debates Regarding Gender, Class, Ethnicity and Age

Women and the Right to Vote 

However, the more enlightened members of society in the early 1900’s argued that:

  • Denying women, the right to vote undermined any claim that Britain was a democratic state.
  • Women were perfectly capable of performing what had traditionally been seen as men’s roles – evidenced by their sacrifices on the home front during the War. 
  • Voting should be considered a fundamental right – not restricted on the basis of gender, wealth or other social subdivision. 



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The Suffragists and Suffragettes

The enfranchisement of women is linked to the activities of two highly prominent campaign groups – the suffragists and the suffragettes. 

  • Over 50 years before the 1918 Reform Act, Parliament was presented with a petition to grant the right to vote to women.
  • The failure of this 1866 petitionled to the formation of groups committed to women’s suffrage in all regions of the UK over the following decades. 
  • In 1897, Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – also known as the suffragists. 


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The Suffragists and Suffragettes

Would women have been granted the right to vote without the militant actions of the suffragettes? 


  • The suffragettes’ violent tactics were suspended during WW1, and the 1918 Reform Act was a direct reaction to women’s roles during the war years.
  • The level of violence was seen as irresponsible and reckless by many men and women – the suffragettes saw their membership dwindle from 1913 onwards. 


  • The step-change in tactics and level of commitment from women who would stop at nothing – including sacrificing their own lives – was a defining moment in the movement. 
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Gender: Issues and Electoral Participation

Since the 1969 Reform Act, analysts of voting behaviour have seen discernible differences in the way that men and women cast their votes – a feature often referred to as the gender gap.

While many refute the notion that women’s complex political preferences can be ‘lumped’ together, in recent elections there has been disparity between the genders: 

  • In the 2010 general election women’s turnout was 4% lower than that of men. It was widely reported that more than 9 million women failed to vote in 2010, compared to 8 million men. 
  • In the 2015 general election there was a distinct gender-based difference in party support. In an election won by the Conservatives, Labour enjoyed a 6% lead among women under 50.
  • In the 2017 general election there was only a small gender gap between men and women, while women were equally split between Labour and the Conservatives (43% to 43%), men supported the Conservatives more than women by 45% to 39%.
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Gender: Issues and Electoral Participation

Immediate postwar election data showed that women were more likely to identify with – and vote for – the Conservative Party.

  • In the decades leading up to 2010, however, the changing role of women in society and the Labour Party’s courting of a female vote, led to a reversal of the gender gap and a greater proportion of women voting for the Labour Party
  • The notion of a ‘gender gap’ – and the belief that there are distinct issues faced by women – was challenged. Jeremy Corbyn was branded ‘patronising’ for suggesting that childcare was a number one priority for women. 

Number of female representatives in the Commons in the 2017 general election: 

208 MPs

Labour: 45% female

Conservative: 21% female

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Enfranchising the Working Class

The earliest major movements towards universal suffrage were not based on gender but on class.

  • The Chartist movement was a working-class movement between 1838 and 1857, based primarily in the industrial north. Mass meetings and petititons signed by millions of working men characterised a movement that put universal male suffrage, the secret ballot, and other social reforms at the top of the political agenda. 
  • The Reform League was established in 1865 to campaign for universal male suffrage. They organised demonstrations and campaigned successfully for the Reform Act of 1867, however the group formally dissolved in 1869. 
  • It took 50 years - the time between the Second and Fourth Reform Acts (1918) - for all men over the age of 21 to be granted the right to vote.
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Social Class: Issues and Electoral Participation

Class refers to the hierarchical arrangment of socio-economic groups made up of people who share similar jobs and income, wealth and outlook. 

Sociological theories of voting behaviour emphasise the importance of upbringing and family in embedding strong support for a 'natural' party. 

Class identification reflects the common bonds felt to exist between those with shared socio-economic characteristics - bonds likely to shape cultural and political outlook.

Partisan alignment stresses the strong relationships that exist between the two main parties and the classes that they were percevied to represent - the Labour Party and the working class and the Conservative Party and the middle/upper classes. 

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Social Class: Issues and Electoral Participation

However, the strong links felt to exist between class, party and voting behaviour had declined by the start of the 21st century. 

  • 1959 general election: 62% of working-class voters supported Labour. 
  • 1983 general election: 38% of working-class voters supported Labour. 
  • Many traditional middle-class voters supported Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997 - they were largely responsible for the 10% swing to the Labour Party. 
  • In 2005, just 9% of voters expressed very strong support for either of the two main parties.
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Social Class: Issues and Electoral Participation

There are two explanations for shifting links between class and voting behaviour that are particularly relevant: 


Explains the weakening links between parties and their traditional class-based supporters as a consequence of changing socio-economic forces. 


Refers to the expansion in the number of people who consider themselves to be 'middle class'. 

This is partly explained by changing employment trends, but it is also a result of political parties trying to broaden their appeal. 

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Ethnicity: Issues and Electoral Participation

In 1950, the number of BAME people in the UK was less than 100,000 - and they were mainly confined to dockland areas such as London, Liverpool, Cardiff and Bristol. 

The non-white population grew from 6.6 million in 2001, to 9.1 million in 2011 (according to the most recent UK census). 

While BAME groups in Britain have not been subject to the same levels of state-disenfranchisement seen in the Southern states of the USA, electoral participation among BAME groups has traditionally been significantly lower than the national average. 

Individuals in the BAME community feel that politics under-represents and marginalises them, with these views leading to deep-seated cynicism towards British democracy. 


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Segregation continued to exist in many southern states of the USA after the Civil War in spite of several constitutional amendments making it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of race.

In defiance of these, southern states passed legislation and constitutional changes at state level, which required potential voters to pass literary tests or pay a poll tax in order to register to vote. 

These deliberately affected the impoverished African Americans, many of whom had only recently been freed from slavery. 

Such practices continued until the passing of the 24th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act which prohibited their use.

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Ethnicity: Issues and Electoral Participation

In 1996, Operation Black Vote (OBV) was founded to encourage black and Asian voters to register and participate. 

OBV runs imaginative campaigns, particularly in the run-up to elections. 

Statistically, ethnic minority voters have tended to live in less affluent, urban communities and have disproportionately supported the Labour Party whose policies are seen aas more sympathetic towards them. 


16% of ethnic minority voters supported the Conservative Party

68% of those supported the Labour Party (comparing to the 31% of white voters who supported the Labour party).

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Ethnicity: Issues and Electoral Participation

Following the 2015 general election, a report by think tank British Future showed that 33% of BAME voters supported the Conservatives, a new record for the party which had previously struggled to appeal to this group of voters. 

For the Labour Party, the high concentration of BAME suporters in a small numer of constituencies means that their strength of support is not reflected in a large number of winning seats. 

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Age: Issues and Electoral Participation

There are two main issues relating to age and political/electoral participation:

1. Older people vote in disproportionately high numbers with the effect that political issues and party policies are consistently skewed in their favour. 

(Conversely, the disengagement of 18-35 year-olds has led to their perceived marginalisation by mainstream politics and politicians).

2. The age at which people are permitted to vote could be lowered to include 16 and 17 year-olds.

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Age: Issues and Electoral Participation

Theories explaining the longstanding support for the Conservative Party among older voters:

  • The kind of policies favoured by the Tories - law and order, pro-family, traditional values - tend to be a more natural 'fit' for older voters.
  • People have become more 'conservative' and less radical as they grow older. 
  • Older voters in the 2010s were 'young' voters in the late 1970s and 1980s - when the Conservative Party was popular and voters' political views became embedded. Some predict that older voters in the 2030s will be more inclined to support the Labour Party for similar reasons. 
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