Democracy and Participation

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  • Created by: Francesca
  • Created on: 19-04-14 13:32

What is democracy?

  • Government by the people, exercise either directly or through elected representatives
  • Lincoln - "Government of the people, by the people, for the people"

Based on 2 core principles: 

1. Political participation - key political decisions are made by the people 

2. Political equality - each citizen has a free and equal opportunity to influence political  decisions

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Define Liberal Democracy

  • Representative democracy
  • Response to fears of the 'tyranny of the majority' - too much power in hands of dominant majority 
  • Normally incorporates a Bill of Rights to protect the interests of individuals and minorities 
  • Seperation of powers - distrubuted between different branches of government (prevent too much power falling into too few hands)
  • System of checks and balances - different brances of government have means by which they can control each others powers 
  • Strong sense of constitutionalism - a strong constitution ensures seperation of powers, system of checks and protection of individual's rights 
  • Implies a tolerant society - where diverse beliefs, groups and interests are alowed to flourish (as long as they do not threaten the security of the state or freedom of others)
  • E.g. USA 
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Define Pluralist Democracy

  • Generally conform to criteria of liberal democracy
  • Tends to be a larger number of different poltical parties
  • Wide variety of political associations and pressure groups - tolerated and may participate in politcal process 
  • Power is widely dispersed - thus people have a great deal influence 
  • Power is not concentrated in a few hands
  • E.g. Germany 
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Define Parliamentary Democracy

  • Unique to UK 
  • To a large extent UK conforms to principles of liberal democracy however has its own special character:
  • Parliament is sovereign - has ultimate political power
  • Laws will only be enforceed if legitimised by UK parliament 
  • Government drawn from parliament and is part of parliament 
  • Parliament ensures geographical representation of all parts of UK 
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Define Direct Democracy

  • Involves the direct, unmediated and continuous participation of citizens in government (like the Athens model) 
  • E.g. In Ancient Athens, Citizens would gather to make decisions that affected them by majority rule.  However most adults, including women and slaves were excluded from the citizenry and only a minority of citizens attended assembly sessions. 
  • Referendums
  • Switzerland - best modern example - they use referendums most frequently 
  • Unworkable if used as a main source of democracy in modern society? 
  • Not mere delegation but can govern. 

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Explain the advantages of direct democracy

  • Genuine democracy 

  • Allows for citizens to personally develop and become more educated 

  • End of professional politics 

  • Legitimate government 
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Types of Direct Democracy

1. Initiatives 

When a group of interested citizens organise a petition on a specific issue. 

If enough people sign, the government is forced to hold a referendum on the issue

Used in the USA e.g. Amendment 6, a Florida ballot measure to ban the use of public funding for abortion (defeated)

2. Public Consultations

Local authorities often ask the community how they would prefer funds to be allocated between different services

Central government too is increasingly using the device - internet makes it easier  

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Types of Direct Democracy (2)

3. Petitions

Not binding 

Large number of citizens may sign a petition on a particular issue 

Not often debated or influential 

In Scottish Parliament there is a special committee to consider such petitions and the more supported ones have to be debated by parliament

E.g. Stop the badger cull - 294,264 signatures (and counting) 

E.g. Convicted London rioters should lose their benefits - 258,270 signatures 

Petitions have to be checked by a government department - so if government don't like it, it won't progress (undemocratic - fundamental flaw)

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Types of Direct Democracy (3)

4. Referendums 

A vote on a single issue put to a public ballot by the government of the day

Generally framed in the form of a simple 'yes/no' answer

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When may referendums be used in the UK?

1. When the government is split on an issue

A referendum will resolve that without destroying the government itself

E.g. Should UK stay in the EEC (European Economic Community)? 1975 UK 

Just over 67% supported Labour government's campiagn to stay, however several cabinet ministers came out in favourof British withdrawal 

2. When an important constitutional change is being proposed

e.g. Greater London Authority made up of an elected mayor and a seperately elected assembly

London 1998 - 72% voted yes 

Voter turnout only 34.1%

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When may referendums be used in the UK? (2)

3. When an important constitutional change needs to be entrenched

e.g. Should there be a Scottish Parliament? 1997 Scotland 

74% voted yes

4. When there is need to secure popular consent 

e.g.Approval for the Good Friday Agreement - 1998 Northern Ireland 

71% voted yes 

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Outline features of the UK's democratic system

  • Democratic elections - free and fair (Operating under secret ballot) 
  • Universal suffrage 
  • Rule by the majority 
  • Free flow of information 
  • Existence of a wide range of parties and pressure groups - providing numerous avenues for political participation and representation 
  • Protection of basic rights and liberties under the rule of law 
  • Multi-level government where policies can, in theory at least, be developed and implemented by those best placed to understand the needs of the people (i.e. subsidiarity) 
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Outline features of the UK's democratic system (2)

Other Features: 

  • Role of Parliament - Parliamentary democracy 

Parliamentary sovereignty, Laws only enforced if legitimised by parliament, Parliament ensures geographical representation of all parts of UK 

  • Pressure Groups - Pluralist democracy 

Power is widely dispersed, people have a great deal of influence, pressure groups toleratd and often participate in political process

Supplementary Features:

  • Referendums 
  • Devolution 
  • European Elections 
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Strengths of UK Democracy

Political Institutions 

  • Strong representation of individuals and constituencies by MPs 
  • Parliament represents constituency, regional and national interests
  • Variety of parties and pressure groups (Pressure groups are growing in number and membership, increasing campaigning through social media and growth in direct action - RSPB more members than 3 main political parties added together and doubled) 
  • Democratic Institutions - HoC 
  • Government has a clear mandate to govern, against which it can be made accountable (e.g. through a vote of no confidence - Callaghan 1979)
  • Rule of Law applies - ensuring eveyone is equal under the law and that government does not act in an arbitrary manner 
  • European Convention on Human Rights - binding on all bodies other than UK parliament
  • Significant powers have been decentralised (largely through devolution process)
  • Judiciary is independent 
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Strengths of UK Democracy (2)

Political Processes 

  • Elections are free and regular (what about under 18s?)
  • Pressure groups have access to various levels of government 
  • There are free media and many independent sources of political information 
  • The Freedom of Information Act (2000)
  • Referendums are held to determine important constitutional issues (e.g. EU 2017) 

Political Participation

  • All competent adults are permitted to vote, stand for office and form political parties
  • There is freedom of association, of thought and of belief 
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Criticisms of UK Democracy

Political Institutions 

  • Undemocratic Institutions e.g. unelected HoL and monarchy 
  • PM enjoys arbitrary prerogative powers (convetional and not subject to law)
  • Sovereignty of parliament means that government is dominant when it controls parliament and rights are at the mercy of a parliamentary majority 
  • ECHR and common law rights can be overturned by UK parliament which is sovereign 
  • Power transferred to EU which has weaker democratic institutions (not accountable enough) 
  • No entrenched constitution 
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Criticisms of UK Democracy (2)

Political Processes


  • Elections may be considered unfair and undemocratic. FPTP system distorts party representation 
  • Parliament is relatively weak in its ability to call government to account, scrutinise legislation and represent different interests. This is the result of what many consider to be excessive government control.
  • Smaller parties are under-represented  
  • Governments are elected on a minority of the national vote 
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Criticisms of UK Democracy (3)

Political Participation 

  • Turnout in elections and referendums is low - 2010 general election - 65% of electorate voted, before 1990s usually above 75% 
  • Turnout among young especially low (44% of citizens in the 18-24 year age bracket voted in the 2010) 
  • Turnout at devolved and local elections often falls below 40% 
  • Party membership has fallen since 1980s (over 2 million in early 1980s in all parties to about 300,000 in 2010) 
  • Low opportunity for direct involvement 
  • Growing degree of political disengagement 
  • Arguably political participation is declining 
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Should voting be made compulsory?


  •  It would increase participation levels for all levels of elections ranging from local and EU elections which are dangerously low to elections for Westminster 
  • Voting is a civic duty - comparable to other duties that citizens perform e.g. paying taxes, completing jury service - Compulsory voting would also be a catalyst for wider civic duties in society 
  • Compulsory voting may extend the citizens understanding of issues and the functions of government. 
  • Parliament reflects more accurately the 'will of the electorate'
  • Governments must consider the total electorate in policy formation and management - not simply focus on those who are likely to turn out 
  • Voter is not actually compelled to vote for any single candidate because voting is by secret ballot - they can choose to leave their ballot paper blank or spoil it 
  • Low turnout is a problem because it brings into question the government's legitimacy and the strength of its mandate - Increased levels of participation could generate increased legitimacy
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Should voting be made compulsory? (2)


  • Undemocratic to force people to vote (i.e. an infringement of liberty)
  • Ill informed and those with little interest in politics are forced to the polls
  • May increase number of donkey votes (ranks candidates in the order they appear on the ballot paper) when used alongside a preferential voting system
  • May increase number of informal votes (invalid)
  • Can serve to increase number of safe, single-member constituencies - encouraging political parties to concentrate on the more marginal seats
  • Takes time and money to determine whether or not those who have failed to cast a ballot have done so for a valid reason 
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Define Majoritarian Democracy

  • Where the government is based on the majorty support of those who inhabit a given territory
  • Has the potential to see minorities marginalised and excluded from the policy-making process
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