Democracy and participation
Power relates to the ability to get someone or a group of people to do what you want them to do - even if it is against their will. There are various manifestations of power. EG, military power uses force to get others to comply. Economic power is also important nowadays, as evidenced by the acceleration of the globalised economy over the past 20 years. Political power can result from either military or economic power. A glance into history indicates just how important military might was for keeping rulers in power.
Authority implies the right to tell people what to do or a right to govern. There are three main types of authority.
1. Traditional authority – This is when rulers call for the consent of people. This has appealed for centuries on the basis of continuity, history, respect for royal and political institutions and religious tradition.
2. Authority based on the charisma of the leader – Many regimes build up a so-called ‘cult of personality’ in order to maintain the compliance of their people.
3. Legal, rational authority – This forms the cornerstone of all Western liberal democrats. The right of the government to govern is based on the fact that it was elected into power and has the legitimate authority of the people to rule the country.
Types of democracy:
Democracy is when the people are able to exercise their will in political matters. It can be direct e.g. when voters express views that will determine specific policy outcomes, or indirect e.g. when representatives are elected to decide on the voters behalf.
Direct democracy – Democracy literally means people power and direct democracy is when all the people in a state make all the decisions affecting them on a daily basis.
Representative democracy – The concept of representative democracy is base on the idea that in a large and complex society, it is not possible to involve everyone in the decision- making process. Electing representatives to take decisions on behalf of its citizens enables such a society to achieve democratic characteristics. As such, representative democracy can be regarded as indirect democracy, as distinct from direct democracy.
Features of representative democracy:
One of the most important features is an election. This enables chosen representatives to govern on behalf of the people and should ensure that government and parliament reflect and respect the opinions of the people. When Labour came to power in 1997, it was following an election in which the people demonstrated their desire for a change in political direction.
Another feature of representative democracy is that the government should reflect the society it seeks to represent. Both in terms of political opinion represented in the views of the various political parties in parliament, and in terms of the social, ethnic and gender groups in society. In order to get more women into the House of Commons, Labour has had a policy of all women short lists for candidates in many of its safest seats.
Accountability is another important feature of representation. In the UK, representatives must periodically be answerable for the decisions that they make. If they want to be re-elected, their actions need to come under public scrutiny. Elections enable the process of accountability in a representative democracy.
Democracy in the UK
Recent developments in the UK democracy:
Some people claim that the UK has become a more democratic country since the election of the Blair government in 1997. During this time, the government has introduced a number of constitutional reforms, which have in the eyes of many on the centre left, transformed a constitution of the 19th century into something approaching one for the twenty-first century.
Devolution – Labour has decentralised power in the UK. After the 1997 general election, Labour fulfilled its promise of offering devolution to Scotland and wales. This development can be seen as bringing politics closer to regions of the UK.
Referendums – Labour held referendums in Scotland and Wales on the issue of devolved assemblies. Until November 2004, when voters in a referendum in the North East turned down a proposal to establish an elected regional assembly, the government was keen to push ahead with referendums for such assemblies in England.
Proportional representation – The new devolved assemblies are elected using systems of proportional representations and it can be argued that the basis for representation in the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales is more democratic than that for the House of Commons, which continues to use the first-past-the-post system.
Reform of the House of Lords – One of the long standing constitutional headaches for the Labour party has been the House of Lords. After failing to reform the second chamber in the late 1940s and late 1960s when Labour was previously in power, the Blair government has taken the significant step of abolishing most of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. This is the first stage of a two-part process of reform.
Human Rights Act – The government has introduced the Human Rights Act, which for the first time sets out clearly the rights that citizens enjoy. Previously, citizens’ rights were based on being able to do anything that the law had not yet proscribed i.e. so-called negative rights. Citizens no longer need to seek redress form the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if they feel that their rights have been curtailed.
Criticisms of UK democracy:
Some people argue that the UK has not become more democratic in recent times...
Electoral reform for the House of Commons – The government has changed its mind about a promise the Labour party made before the 1997 general election, which was to hold a referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons. Despite other bodies having new systems, arguably the key decision-making body in the UK remains controlled by a political part with fewer than half of the votes cast in the country.
Reform of the House of Lords – The government can be criticised for not completing the reform of the Lords and Tony Blair in particular appears to want to resist having an elected second chamber. Given the fact that an appointed chamber always gives rise to the suspicion that its composition is controlled by the government, Blair will remain under some pressure from reformers on this issue.
Human Rights Act – The Human Rights Act is not an entrenched document. It is another Act of Parliament which can be amended or even repealed at some future date. Critics argue that this has already started, as it was amended almost as soon as it became law in order to restrict the rights of terrorist suspects.
Referendums:A referendum is a vote on a specific issue put before the electorate by the government usually in the form of a question requiring a yes or a no response. It is a contemporary example of direct democracy.
Examples of referendums:
- 1973: Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK – The people of Northern Ireland were asked if they wanted to remain part of the UK. Voted ‘yes’.
- 1995: Devolution for Scotland and Wales – In Scotland, voters had a two-question referendum: One was about whether to have a devolved parliament or not and the other was whether the parliament should have tax-varying powers. In Wales, voters were only asked whether they wanted an assembly. The Scots voted ‘yes’ to both questions.
For and against referendums
Arguments FOR referendums:
- They enable people to decide on issues which they might not have the opportunity to consider at general election.
- They offer another way for the public to get involved in politics.
- The associated campaigns can educate the public.
- They are democratic
- There are some policy decisions that are so important that referendums ought to be used.
- They can help resolve party splits.
Arguments AGAINST referendums:
- The media could have too much influence on public opinion.
- Governments should do the governing.
- Governments use them cynically.
- They undermine parliamentary sovereignty.
- People might not know enough about the issue to make an informed choice.
- Some people prefer to be led.