Elections and Referendums

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  • Created on: 14-04-19 13:44

What are the main functions of elections?

Elections are a fundamental part of the democratic process.

They provide a means for eligible citizens to:

  • Express political preferences.
  • Pass judgements on a party or government in office.
  • Vote for candidates to represent them in the decision-making process.
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What are the main functions of elections?

The 4 main functions of elections are: 

  • Participation - elections provide the single most important opportunity for individuals to engage in the democratic process and influence the political agenda. 
  • Legitimisation - successful candidates and parties can claim an electoral mandate to pursue their policies and enact their manifesto commitments. Mandates can be personal (for an individual MP within a constituency) or for a party (winning enough seats to secure control of Parliament)
  • Accountability - elections offer citizens the chance to hold individual MPs to account and to pass a verdict on the performance of government. 
  • Representation - in elections, citizens vote for people to act on their behalf in the decision-making process. 
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What are the main functions of elections?

Some stress that MPs should be seen as trustees - rather than delegates, faithfully serving the wishes of their electors - who act on behalf of their constituents with a responsibility to use their experience and expertise when making judgements.

However, the advent of party loyalty, whipped votes and the extension of collective responsibility has severley diminished the Burkean trustee model in recent decades. 

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What is an electoral mandate?

An electoral mandate implies that the winning political party at a general election has obtained popular authority from the electorate and therefore the 'right' to govern in accordance with its electoral commitments, particularly through the passage of legislation and the action detailed in its manifesto.

An electoral mandate can be regarded as a contractual relationship between the winning party and the electorate as it contains elements of obligation on the part of the governing party. 

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What is an electoral mandate?

The strength of an electoral mandate claimed by the UK's government is questionable since a winning party has never achieved over 50% of the popular vote in any postwar election

  • In 2005, Labour polled 35.2% of the votes cast - the lowest share of the vote ever recorded by a single-party majority government - even with a majority of 66 MPs.
  • In 2015, the Conservative Party's share of the vote rose just 0.8% from 2010 (from 36.1% to 36.9%), and yet it was able to exchange a coalition government for a single-party government with a working majority of 12 MPs. 
  • In 2017, Labour received 12.8 million votes. In securing 40% of the popular vote, it gained a third more votes than it had recieved at the previous election. However, it won only 30 more seats, moving from 232 to 262. 
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What types of electoral systems are used in the UK


  • Requires constituency winners to secure either the most votes (the plurality system of FPTP where the largest amount of votes is required) OR an absolute majority (AV or SV)
  • FPTP is still used for elections to Westminster Parliament, however another majoritarian system - SV - is used to elect the London mayor. 
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What types of electoral systems are used in the UK


  • Secures the closest relationship between the votes won and the seats gained as possible. 
  • Some proportional systems (e.g. list systems) use large regional constituencies with multiple representatives to guarantee this. 
  • In Northern Ireland, elections to local government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament take place under a single transferable vote (STV) - a highly proportional electoral system.
  • Since 1999, UK elections to the European Parliament have taken place under a closed regional party list system.
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What types of electoral systems are used in the UK


  • Combine aspects of majoritarian and proportional systems.
  • Some hybrid systems (AMS), gives voters two votes - one for a constituency representative who requires a simple majority, and another for regional representation from a party list. 
  • Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections take place under a hybrid AMS system.
  • The Greater London Assembly's 25 members are also elected under an AMS system. 
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How does FPTP work?

Under FPTP, voters are given a single vote that is not transferable

Votes within each constituency are then counted, and the candidate who secures the largest number of votes wins. 

A candidate only needs to secure one more vote than their nearest rival (a simple majority).

  • In the UK, FPTP normally operates on the basis of single-member constituencies (where one individual is elected to represent one geographical area). 
  • In the June 2017 elections, there were 650 single-member constituencies.
  • By-elections occur when a vacany occurs as a result of death or resignation, and is held in the affected constituency under the FPTP electoral system.
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Advantages of FPTP

  • Representation - despite the adverse votes-to-seats ratio, the FPTP system is representative in a geographical sense. Each constituency within the UK is roughly the same size (containing approx. 70,000 voters), and has a single representative. Every winning candidate pledges to represent all constituents - rather than just those who have voted for them.
  • Equality of suffrage - voters have one vote. They do not cast votes for a party and do not rank candidates according to preference. They vote only for single constituency candidates who may or may not represent one of the main parties. 
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Advantages of FPTP

  • Accountability - the single-member nature of the system allows constituents to make clear statements in support or opposition of their constituency MPs and 'hold to account' those who seem unacceptable. A 6% swing away from Labour from 2005 to 2010 saw it lose its majority with nearly 100 seats. The Lib Dem vote share declined from 7.9% to 7.4% between 2015 and 2017, but its number of seats rose from 8 to 12. 
  • Decisive results and stable governments - the system delivers decisive, single-party majority governments.
  • Marginalising 'extremists'the system sidelines extremist parties. UKIP polled over 3.8 million votes in the 2015 election but only won one seat. Without a strong parliamentary platform to demonstrate post-referendum relevance, UKIP has practically 'melted away'. 
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Disadvantages of FPTP

  • It is unrepresentative - the FPTP system does not translate voters' wishes into a representative assembly in a democratic way. Wasted votes are the reason for this, and under a winner-takes-all system, the size of a candidate's majority is ignored - as are all votes for a losing candidate. Wasted votes can lead to serious electoral anomalies - in 1951 Labour polled 48.8% of the votes and won 295 seats, while the Conservatives polled 48% of the votes and won 321 seats
  • It creates 'safe seats' and uncompetitive electionsvoters become disinclined to vote. In safe seats, odds are stacked up against any voters looking for change. Even sizeable swings of 10% from one candidate or party to another will not affect the outcome in an estimated 65% of constituencies in any given general election. This results in tactical voting where voters vote for a less preferred candidate who has a better chance of winning. The aim of tactical voting is to keep out the candidate of a party that the voter dislikes, and they do this to make them feel as though they are casting a more effective vote for an alternative candidate rather than their favourite one. 
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Disadvantages of FPTP

  • A lack of representation among MPs themselves - FPTP requires that candidates are selected by local constituency associations, usually from approved lists. The 2017 House of Commons is being trumpeted as the most diverse ever - yet while the number of female and ethnic minority MPs are at their highest level, just 1% of the House of Commons are physically disabled, compared to 16% of the adult working-age population. 
  • Single-member constituencies - supporters of other parties may not feel that they have a sympathetic representative to turn to.
  • Unrewarding of 'minor' parties - traditionally, Lib Dem support is spread evenly across the country. The Conservatives and Labour enjoy support in specific areas. The Lib Dems come second in over a 1/3 of constituencies but any votes placed second are wasted. 
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Alternative electoral systems: SV

All directly elected English mayors and all police and crime commissioners are elected using the supplementary vote (SV ) electoral system. 

SV is a majoritarian electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. 

Each voter has two votes - a first and a second choice. If no candidate wins over 50% of the first-choice vote, all but the top two candidates are eliminated with the second choices on their ballot papers added to the first-choice voters already won by the two leaders.

The final totals for the two leading candidates now must produce an outright winner. 

The system was used to elect London mayor, and in May 2016 winning candidate Sadiq Khan's 56.8% of the vote was based on first and second preferences as his vote share of 44.2% of first choices was not enough to win on the first round vote alone. 

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Alternative electoral systems: SV


  • It is easy to understand. 
  • Voters have more choice than under FPTP and there are fewer 'wasted' votes than under FPTP. 
  • It avoids third-placed candidates emerging victorious with lots of second-preference ballots. 


  • It is not proportional due to the presence of significant numbers of wasted votes.
  • There is no need for an absolute majority - candidates may win without over 50% of first or second preferences. 
  • It encourages tactical voting with voters considering how best to deploy their votes in the event that their first choice gets eliminated. 
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Alternative electoral systems: STV

The single-transferable vote (STV) is a fully proportional voting system. 

It is favoured due to its fairness and the amount of choice it gives to voters. 

It is used in local and assembly elections in Northern Ireland, and is the system operating in the Republic of Ireland and the local government for Scotland since 2007.

STV works in the follwing way:

  • Constituencies return more than one member each. Northern Ireland has six. 
  • In order to be elected, a candidate must acheive a 'quota'. The quota is calculated by taking the total votes cast and dividing it by the number of seats plus one.
  • Voters may vote for all the candidates in order of their own preference.
  • Candidates who achieve the quota on their first preference are elected.
  • When the required number of candidates has achieved the quota, the counting can end.  
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Alternative electoral systems: STV


  • Multi-member constituencies means that constituents have a better choice, and representatives are likely to be more reflective of the voting population. 
  • broadly proportional result is gained with few votes wasted.
  • Greater voter choice and 'power to the people'.
  • Likelihood of a coalition government to unite divided governments.


  • The single MP constituency link is removed. 
  • It is complicated for voters and involves a lengthy process of counting. 
  • Parties still retain much power in choosing which candidates stand in which seats. 
  • It can lead to weak coalitions and issues with accountability when considering how to pass electoral judgements on the performance of individual representatives. 
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Alternative ES: Closed Regional Party List

The UK currently operates under a closed regional list system to elect Members of the European Parliament. 

Voters are offered a choice of political parties and the chance to vote for one of the party lists. The seats are awarded in proportion to the votes cast for each party.

Using a closed list system, voters have no influence over which individuals are elected from the list and the order of the list is determined by the party leaderships. 

An open list permits voters to see candidates within the list and indicate a preference for a certain candidate.

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Alternative ES: Closed Regional Party List


  • The result is proportionate, allowing smaller parties to benefit.
  • By-elections do not occur - if a seat becomes vacant, a party fills the vacancy with whoever is on its list. 
  • Coalitions are often formed, meaning the politics is more consensual. 


  • Regional representation breaks the close links between constituents and their representatives, creating a 'democratic deficit' as voters do not choose or hold any candidates to account.
  • It can produce weak coalition governments. 
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Alternative electoral systems: AMS

The additional member system (AMS) is used to elect regional representatives to thedevolved bodies of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

It is a hybrid system: combining FPTP and a regional list system. 

Every voter has two votes: one for a constituency candidate and one from a choice of party lists.

Under AMS in Scotland and Wales, 2/3 of the seats are elected using FPTP with the other 1/3 elected on the basis of closed regional list voting. 

Parties which do less well in the constituencies have their proportion of list votes adjusted upwards

Those who do proportionally well under FPTP (typically the SNP) have their votes adjusted downwards.

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Alternative electoral systems: AMS


  • Voters have two votes. They have more choice and the strong links between individual representatives and their constituencies remain. 
  • AMS represents party support more accurately as the 'additional member' part redistributes seats to parties which perform less well in the FPTP vote. The most popular party has a realistic chance of securing a majority of seats to form an effective signle-party government. 
  • Minority and under-represented groups have better representation as parties can place them higher up the closed regional lists. 


  • The system is more complex than simple FPTP as it involves formulae to translate votes to seats. 
  • AMS often results in coalitions, but these tend to be stable. 
  • Additional member do not have a specific constituency and therefore are not directly accountable to a set of electors - AMS creates two different types of representatives. 
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Patterns of voting behaviour

The decline of long-term factors

The 'primacy' model suggests that longer-term factors are more important than short-term factors in deciding elections. Supporters of this view tend to see stability in electoral behaviour as opposed to volatility.

The 'recency' model holds the view that voting patterns are more volatile and that the process such as embourgeoisement have led to class and partisan dealignment. Short-term factors are much more important, with as many as 10 million voters making up their minds in the last month of the general election campaign.

Evidence of voting behaviour in many modern industrial nations points to a shift away from party voting of one kind to another. Voters, rather than following patterns that have pre-existed for decades, are much more rational in the way they cast their votes.

Voters may reflect more objectively on the parties and their policies, and as floating voters be far more open to messages within the electoral campaign itself. 

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Patterns of voting behaviour

The rise of short-term factors.


Voters who reflect more carefully on party policies are more likely to be issue voting

Voters who are more rational in the way they cast their vote are less likely to feel constrained by long-term factors and are more likely to scrutinise the stance of the main parties over key issues that affect them - this is issue voting. 

  • In the 2015 general election, issues at stake were focused on health, the economy and immigration. According to a YouGov poll in the month prior to the 2015 election, 50% of the public said that 'health' was one of the most important issues affecting the public. However, there appeared to be little choice for the voters, so the election yielded little overall change.
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Patterns of voting behaviour


The UK system is different from most modern democratic states in that the political head of state is not directly elected by the people. The relative popularity of party leaders can have serious consequences for the party's electoral prospects.

  • Margaret Thatcher's authoritative leadership attracted significant numbers of voters to the Conservative Party in general elections between 1979 and 1987, especially in contrast to the unconventional Labour leader Michael Foot in 1983. 
  • The popularity of Tony Blair swept many other Labour MPs into Parliament between 1997 and 2001, leading to Labour's tow landslide electoral victories. 
  • The personal unpopularity of Nick Clegg in 2015 saw his Liberal Democrats reduced to a parliamentary party of just 8 MPs.
  • The perceived aloofness of Theresa May was exposed on the campaign trail in 2017 and floating voters - many of whom had backed UKIP drawn to the 'straight-talking' of Nigel Farage - did not uniformly back the Conservatives. 
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Patterns of voting behaviour


  • The extent to which the broadcast media, and especially the BBC, are biased, seeking to trivialise radical issues or outsiders that challenge the status quo.
  • The extent to which traditional print journalism has been replaced by 'new' media channels of the internet andsocial media platforms - with the inherent risk of the wide consumption of unreliable (even 'fake') news.
  • The extent to which opinion polls - themselves increasingly unreliable in an ange of greater voting volatility - shape opinion rather than reflecting it. 
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Patterns of voting behaviour

Are the 'traditional' media biased? 

Traditional mass media - especially television news corporations and conventional print journalism - are controlled by a narrow metropolitan elite, the broad objective being to encourage readers or watchers to preserve the established status quo, trivialising 'radical' issues and portraying policies 'alternative' to the mainstream in a negative light.

In recent years, the BBC has been criticised for being left-leaning, pro-EU and anti-business. 

  • On accusations that the BBC is left-leaning, research by Cardiff University found that while Labour and Conservatives do dominate political coverage, accounting for 86% of appearances in 2007 and 80% in 2012, the Conservatives actually get more airtime than Labour. 
  • On accusations that the BBC is pro-EU, the research looked at 2007 in which the Lisbon Treaty dominaed agenda absorbing 70% of EU coverage, and in 2012 which focused on negotiations over ratifying the EU budget which accounted for 72% of EU coverage. In both cases, the debate was dominated by representatives of the two main parties and the EU was framed narrowly as a threat to British interests. 
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The influence of the media on electoral outcomes

What has been the impact of the rise of 'new' media on electoral outcomes? 

  • Social media facilitates direct contact between those seeking election and voters - bypassing traditional orthodox media channels and conventional advertising. In the 2017 general election, Labour's younger supporters had pre-built extensive support bases for blogs and social media accounts to utilise during the campaign to communicate pro-Corbyn coverage.
  • Social media allows key messages to go viral and reach even larger audiences - like-minded voters can share news, information and campaign events. 
  • Use of social media 'analytics' enables messages to be tailored to audiences so that different genders, regions, or ages can receive slightly different messages.
  • The practical power of social media is significant - it has enabled many more obscure politicians to raise significant campaign funds, and for 'ordinary' voters to leverage substantial support to combat the dominance of traditional, moneyed interests. 

(However, unregulated and unreliable 'fake news' has become a recent phenomenon). 

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Referendums in the UK

What are referendums and why are they used? 

A referendum is a vote on a single issue put before the electorate by the government, usually in the form of a question requiring a yes or no response. 

Referendums are held for a number of reasons: 

  • To legitimise and entrench major constitutional changes. The UK's uncodified constitution and the priunciple of parliamentary sovereignty mean that Parliament has the power to make nad unmake laws.. A popular vote in support of an institution or policy effectively entrenches the decision.
  • To ensure public consultation. Some referendums arise from a genuine desire on the part of the government to engage or to enthuse the public for a scheme or significant change.
  • To put proposals to the electorate. Governments (or prospective governments if the referendum has a manifesto commitment) can steer clear of commiting to difficult policies that might alienate voters. The Conservative Party long pledged a referendum on the UK's relationship with the EU before commiting to it in 2016. 
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Referendums in the UK

What did we learn about referendums from the 'Brexit' vote? 

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) highlighted a key difference in the 'use' of referendums - supporting their use for the resolution of key constitutional differences but opposing what the Committee temed 'bluff call' referendums, when they are used to close down an unwanted debate, using the example of David Cameron's calling of the EU referendum

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Referendums in the UK

Should referendums be used more widely? 


  • Referendums can 'bridge the gap' between elections. Major constitutional changes are effectively protected or 'entrenched' by referendum success. 
  • Referendums provide a specific mandate for action. Local referendums can allow citizens to engage with important issues that affect them directly. 


  • Referendums are fundamentally at odds with representative democracy, under which decision making is handed over to elected representatives with greater expertise. Referendums are associated with a low turnout and they require the reduction of complex and intricate issues to a simple yes or no question. 
  • They are expensive - the AV referendum in May 2011 cost over £75 million.
  • In keeping with Clement Attlee's claim that referendums are 'the devices of demogogues and dictators', governments decide whether to hold referendums and how the question will be framed to ensure the best possible outcome for them. 
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