Democracy and Political Participation

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The importance of democracy


  • establishes and protects freedom - gives people rights
  • protects minorities if it's in a pluralist form - no tyranny of the majority
  • controls government power - no corruption
  • encourages participation - involves citizens
  • disperses power more widely - no unfair concentration of power

Citizenship -

  • the idea that members of the political community have certain rights
  • implies that an individual has a right to live within a state and enjoy its benefits
  • implies a certain level of obligation e.g. to obey the law
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Political Participation

Forms of political participation

  • contributing to online forums/petitions
  • voting in elections
  • joining a pressure group
  • joining a political party
  • standing for political office

Active citizenship - it is the duty of all citizens to be politically active, not a right - Labour, 1990s

Big Society - many functions of the state should be replaced by local activism, e.g. free schools - Conservatives

Despite these initiatives, levels of political participation have fallen. The main evidence of this is:

  • election turnout falling
  • party membership declining
  • research has found evidence of partisan dealignment
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Digital Democracy


  • Organised through internet sites
  • e.g. Official Government site - if a petion gets 100,000 signatures it may be considered
  • e.g. 38 Degrees

Online forums, blogs and networks

  • interested people can contribute
  • create a 'political climate' but do they promote specific change?
  • e.g. Total Politics
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How can political participation be increased?

Ways to increase political participation

Compulsory voting

  • e.g. Australia
  • may force citizens to be aware of political issues
  • gives people 'ownership' of the result
  • infringement of civil liberties BUT could have abstain option

Reducing voting age to 16

  • politicises people at an earlier age
  • 16/17 year olds not experienced enough to vote
  • few teenagers would bother voting
  • 16 year olds can be asked to pay tax so should have right to vote
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How can political participation be increased?

Making voting easier, e.g. internet/text voting

  • simplifies it, includes more people
  • appeals to younger people
  • security problems
  • no evidence that it would work

Electoral reform

  • makes more votes count
  • offers more choice to voters
  • systems such as regional list empower supporters of smaller parties
  • 2011 rejection of AV has put the cause back by a generation
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Direct Democracy

Direct democracy - a political system of circumstances where the people themselves make key decisions

Referendums are a form of direct democracy.


  • popular vote where the people are asked to determine a political issue directly
  • in UK the result is not binding on Parliament because Parliament remains sovereign
  • it is extremely unlikely that Parliament would go against referendum result
  • Parliament and government decide whether to hold one and what the question is
  • Conservatives are unlikely to use referendums, Labour are likely
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Pros and cons of referendums


  • most direct form of democracy
  • people are more likely to respect/accept decisions they've made themselves
  • may prevent government making unpopular decisions
  • may resolve issues that cause problems for government and parties
  • entrench constitutional change


  • may undermine respect for Parliament
  • some issues may be too complex
  • may produce an emotional response not a rational one
  • wealthy groups or tabloid press could influence the result
  • may be used as verdict on government in general
  • tyranny of the majority, minorities may suffer
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Representative Democracy

Representative democracy - political system where most decisions are made by elected representatives rather than the people themselves

The nature of representation has evolved, passing through 3 main stages:

1. Burkean representation, 18th century - an elected representative should use his judgement in the best interests of his constituents, he shouldn't just follow instructions

2. Parliamentary representation, 19th century - representatives are expected to strike a balance between their own judgement, the policies of their party and the interests of their constituents

3. Party delegation, 20th century - MPs are subjected to ever greater control by their party leadership. MPs have effectively become delegates of their party

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Comparison of direct and representative democracy

Relative advantages of direct democracy

  • purest form of democracy
  • avoids representatives making decisions in their own interests
  • people are becoming more well-informed and educated so can make their own judgements
  • disillusionment with representatives - people prefer to make their own decisions
  • decisions made by the people carry more authority

Relative advantages of representative democracy

  • representatives may use superior knowledge and judgement, avoiding hasty and emotional decisions
  • mediation possible between different sections of society, avoids tyranny of the majority
  • direct democracy reduces complex issues down to over-simplified questions/answers
  • demands made by the people are incoherent and illogical, representatives can convert them into practical solutions
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Is Britain a liberal democracy?

Liberal democracy - type of democracy where there is emphasis on the protection of individual rights and liberties

Is Britain a liberal democracy?

Accountability - Parliament forces government to be accountable but perhaps Parliament doesn't have enough time or expertise to undertake this task effectively 

Free and fair elections - mostly fair free of corruption with an independent Electoral Commission, but some say that FPTP is not fair (wasted votes)

Legitimacy and transfer of power - excellent. High degree of acceptance of election results, and all mainstream parties accept legitimacy of government

Information - free press, with little/no evidence of government controlling the media. Censorship is used in matters of warfare and national security but all democracies do this

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Is Britain a liberal democracy?

Rights and liberties - Britain has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights but Parliament retains its right to suspend these guarantees, making Britain less liberal than other democracies in this respect

Limited government - no written constitution (unlike the USA), giving the PM uncontrolled powers. However, Parliament has a good record of restraining governments, e.g. in 2005 the HOC prevented the government from giving itself the power to imprison terrorist suspects for 90 days without trial

Tolerance - Britain is known and admired for its tolerant politics and culture, however the growing terrorist threat and increased migration, immigration and asylum seeking have strained its tolerance

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The democratic deficit and democratic renewal

There are three main elements to the issue of whether Britain is suffering from a democratic deficit.

1. Falling political participation

2. Undemocratic institutions within the system of government

3. Increased centralisation of power that is insufficiently accountable

Proposals to rectify these deficiencies are called democratic renewal. Some examples are:

  • votes at 16
  • compulsory voting
  • more referendums
  • elected second chamber in Parliament
  • PR in elections
  • more powers granted to local/regional government
  • system for recalling unsatisfactory MPs
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