Government and Politics Unit 1

Pressure groups, Democracy and Elections

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Nature of Democracy - What is Legitimacy?

What is Legitimacy?

Legitimacy means in general the "right to govern" and to "make laws" which will be enforced and are likely to be obeyed by the people. In more detail:

  • A regime may be legitimate because its government is widely recognised. However, the legitimacy of some regimes may be disputed

Legitimacy refers to the right of an individual or body to be recognised and to have the right to excercise power. In democractic countries, legitimacy is usually conveyed by election.

  • Legitimacy can refer to the degree to which a body or government can be justified in exercising power.

Power refers to the ability of an individual or a body to force others to do something they might otherwise not do. Power is normally said to have three levels:

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Nature of Democracy - What is Legitimacy?

  • Coercion - which means force, often physical force.
  • Political power - which involves the use of rewards and sanctions, legal authority and persuasion.
  • Influence - which means being able to affect how others act or think without force.

In the democratic world, legitimacy is normally conferred by election. It could be argued that British government lacks legitimacy as it is elected on a minoirty of the national vote.

e.g. It could be argued that the 2010 coalition lacked legitimacy as it did not have an electoral mandate.

Legitimacy is closely related to the concept of authority.

Authority, like legitimacy, means the right to exercise power. It is usually said to derive from three possible sources:

  • Tradition - the power has been exercised for a long period of time
  • Election - power may be exercised if an individual has been elected
  • Charisma - a person develops authority through the force of their personality
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Nature of Democracy - What is Consent and how can

Consent in politics refers to evidence that the people consent to be governed in a particular way and/or by a particular government.

Consent can be conferred in these ways:

  • By free election
  • By good turnouts in free elections
  • By a distinct lack popular dissent
  • By clear demonstrations of support for government
  • By an explicit referendum (also known as a plebicite) to adopt a particular consitution

The prescence of these factors is evidence of consent.

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Nature of Democracy - What is Citizenship?

  • The status of being a citizen grants a person the enjoyment of certain rights.

E.g. In a democracy these are the right to vote, to stand for office, to be granted a fair trial if accused of a crime, to be treated equally by the law and to be guaranteed justice.

  • Citizenship also implies the enjoyment of civil liberties

E.g. freedom of expression, of movement, of thought, of association.

  • Citizenship also carries certain duties or obligations

E.g. to obey the law, to pay taxes, possibly to defend the country

  • The modern idea of "active citizenship", developed by Labour in the 1990s and followed by the Conservatives after 2010 in their "Big Society" programme, is that citizens we also have a duty to be politically active.

E.g. volunteering for charity work, environmental protection, being politically active and socially responsible.

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Nature of Democracy - What is Democracy?

General definition: any system of government where the people have access to independent information and are able to influence and are able to influence government decisions.

It also implies that government makes itself accountable to the people. Democracy can take a number of forms, the main two being direct and representative democracy.

Features of a modern democracy:

  • There is a peaceful transition of power from one government to the next
  • There are free and fair regular elections
  • People have open access to independent information, including free press and other media
  • Governments should be accountable to the people and representative institutions
  • There is a high degree of freedom for individuals and groups
  • Different political ideologies and beliefs are tolerated
  • The rule of law applies - all are equal under the law
  • Government operates in the broad interests of the people.
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Nature of Democracy - What is Direct Democracy?

In direct democracy:

  • People themselves make decisions, usually through referendums
  • People are directly consulted on political decisions - this is also known as consultative democracy
  • People may take the initiative in creating political change (i.e. popular action provokes a political decision)

E.g. referendums in the UK (on AV in May 2011) initiatives (USA and Switzerland), public consultations (English local government).

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Nature of Democracy - What is Representative Democ

In representative democracy:

  • The people elect representatives.
  • The people do not make the decisions themselves, but delegate power to their representatives.
  • There are political parties that represent different political views.
  • Assossiations and pressure groups represent different sections of society, interests and causes.
  • There are representative assemblies that express the will of the people and of sections of society.

Burkean representation, named after the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, states that elected representatives should use their own judgement rather than slavishly following the wished of their constituency or party.

Delegation is the idea that a representative should follow very closely the wishes of those who have elected him or her.

Party representation means that if a representative is a member of a party, then they are expected to support and vote for the known policies of that party.

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Nature of Democracy - How Representation works in

In the UK:

  • Representation operates through MPs - they represent individual constituents, whole constituencies, sometimes sectional interests, sometimes causes, sometimes the national interest.
  • Most MPs, however, represent their party and it's electoral manifesto.
  • Parties have a representative function. They represent both sections of society and particular political views.
  • Pressure groups represent interests and cause.
  • The House of Commons as a whole can represent the national interest.
  • The House of Lords is a vehicle for representation as many peers represent sections of society and prominent causes as well as the national interest.

Parliamentary democracy is a form of liberal democracy in which a parliament or elected assebly is the key insitution.

It means that parliament makes government accountable and government is a part of parliament. it implies that parliament is the main vehicle for representation. Government is also drawn from parliament.

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Nature of Democracy - What is Pluralist Democracy?

In pluralist democracy:

  • Multiple parties and political assossiations are allowed to operate
  • Different political beliefs are tolerated and allowed flourish.
  • There are many sources of independent information and opinion through the media.
  • Power is dispersed among different individuals, bodies and institutions, rather than being concentrated in one or a few locations.


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Nature of Democracy - What is a Liberal Democracy?

A liberal democracy has all the general features of democracy. In addition:

  • Individual liberties are respected and well protected.
  • There is a strong consitution that limits the powers of government.
  • Government features strong internal checks and balances.
  • There is a high level of political toleration.
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Democracy in the UK - Advantages of Representative

  • Most people don't have the time to be continually involved in politics, so they can elect representatives to act on their behalf
  • Representatives may have more experience, knowledge and expertise than the rest of the population
  • Representatives can be made accountable for their decisions, whereas the people as a whole cannot
  • The demands of the people may be incoherent and contradictory. Representatives can "aggregate" - that is, convert incoherent demands into coherent political programmes.
  • People can react emotionally to issues. Representatives can be more rational.
  • Representatives can educate the public about political issues.
  • Different sections of society and various political causes and beliefs can be well represented by elected representatives.

E.g. MPs in the UK, US congressmen, pressure group influence on the EU, party policies.

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Democracy in the UK - Advantages of Direct Democra

Direct democracy also has many benefits:

  • It is the purest form of democracy, dating back to ancient Athens.
  • Important decisions can be strengthened if they recieve the direct consent of the people. Referendums give decisions legitimacy.
  • Referendums and direct consultation can educate the public about political issues.
  • People can participate more directly in direct democracy. This improves engagement with politics and may strengthen positive citizenship.
  • Important consitutional changes can be entrenched through a referendum.
  • When government itself is divided, referendums can solve the conflict and secure a consensus decision.

E.g. Referendums on British membership of the EU in 1975, referendums on devolution in 1997 and the referendum on AV in 2011.

In a referendum the people are invited, on a national, regional or local basis, to vote on a key political issue, usually of a constitutional nature. Referendums pose a simple question which requires a straight yes or no answer.

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Democracy in the UK - Disadvantages of representat

Representative democracy is subject to the following disadvantages:

  • It may be difficult to make representatives accountable between elections
  • Representatives may ignore or distort the demands of the people to suit their own political advantage
  • When dominated by parties, representatives may follow the party line rather than represent their constituents accurately.
  • Representative democracy may result in too much political conflict which can only be resolved by direct democracy
  • The idea of the electoral mandate is flawed in that voters are only presented with a manifesto, the whole of which they must either accept or reject. Voters cannot express preferences within various election manifestos.

E.g. Problems presented by the 2010 British coalition; low electoral turnouts in the UK after 2001 suggest loss of faith in party politics.

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Democracy in the UK - Disadvantages of Direct Demo

Direct democracy also has it's problems:

  • Issues may be too complex for the average person to understand.

E.g. British membership of the European single currency.

  • People may vote in an emotional, irrational way.

E.g. a vote on capitol punishment.

  • If there are too many referendums people may suffer from "voter fatigue" and so the turnout may be low.
  • Voters may start to lose respect for representative insitutions if they become used to making their own decisions.
  • Referendums and direct democracy may encourage the "tyranny of the majority" which results in the oppression of minorities.
  • If there is a low turnout in a referendum, the result may lack legitimacy
  • A very close referendum vote may result in an unsatisfactory conclusion and fail to acheive acceptance of the outcome.
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Democracy in the UK - The use of Referendum in the

E.g. WHen the government is split on an issue, a referendum will resolve that issue without destroying government itself.

  • 1975: referendum on whether or not teh UK should remain in the EU (yes)
  • 2011: referendum on whether to adopt AV as an electoral system. (no)

E.g. When an important constitutional change is being proposed which will affect the way people are governed.

  • 1998: referendum in London on whether to adopt an elected mayor (yes)
  • 2004: referendum in northeast England on whether to introduce an elected regional assembly. (no)

When it is necessary to entrench an important consitutional change.

  • 1997: referendum on whether to introduce devolved government in Scotland (yes)
  • 1997: referendum on whether to give the Scottish Parliament the power to vary the level of income tax (yes)
  • 1997: referendum on whether to introduce as assembly in Wales (yes)

When there is a special need to secure popular consent.

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Democracy in the UK - Comparing Direct and Represe

The following distinctions can be drawn:

  • direct democracy is purer than representative democracy
  • direct democracy tends to operate in connection with constitutional changes and reforms, whereas representative democracy concerns the day to day, year to year running of the country.
  • Representative democracy considers various different interests in society and is  more pluralistic whereas direct democracy represents only the will of the majority.
  • representatives are accountable for their decisions while the people cannot be accountable to themselves.
  • Referendums can be seen as more legitimate than decisions made by representative institutions. 
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Enhancing Democracy - Participation in UK politics

In the UK, citizens can participate in the democratic process by:

  • voting in local, regional and national elections
  • voting in referendums
  • taking part in political consultation exercises
  • being a member and supporter of a pressure group
  • being a pressure group activist
  • joining a political party
  • becoming an activist in a political party
  • standing for office at local, regional or national level
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Enhancing Democracy - Evidence of a Decline in Pol

There is considerable evidence of a decline in participation in the UK:

  • turnouts in national and regional elections have been falling
  • turnouts in referendums tend to be low
  • party memberships have been falling since the 80s
  • activism in political parties has fallen
  • There is evidence of widespread disillusionmennt with party politics
  • identification with political parties has fallen

E.g. 1992 general election: 77.7%, 2010 general election: 65.1% turnouts.

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Enhancing Democracy - Methods of Increasing Politi

Several methods have been suggested for increasing participation.

Compulsory voting:

Arguments for:

  • increases turnouts
  • it forces people to think about politics
  • people become more used to voting
  • results have more legitimacy and are thus respected

Arguments against

  • it abuses people's freedom
  • results may be seen as artificial
  • it is costly to enforce
  • it cannot solve the problem of apathy.
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Enhancing Democracy - Methods of Increasing Politi

Votes at 16

Arguments for:

  • it makes the young politically aware
  • It improves the level of identification with politics
  • it makes political education more relevant

Arguments against:

  • 16 yr olds are too young to make a judgement
  • They may choose not to vote
  • There may be a distortion of party policies to attract younger voters
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Enhancing Democracy - Methods of Increasing Politi

Citizenship education:

Arguments for:

  • it improves political knowledge
  • it encrougaes engagement with politics

Arguments against:

  • education is expensive
  • it may not create genuine interest
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Enhancing Democracy - Methods of Increasing Politi

E democracy:

arguments for:

  • it provides greater access to politics for citizens
  • it can promote a more direct form of democracy
  • e voting might increase electoral turnout
  • the internet provides a vast source of independent political information

Arguments against:

  • it is vulnerable to fraud and hacking
  • illicit and false information can circulate easily
  • those who lack technical knowledge might be excluded
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Enhancing Democracy - Evidence of increasing Polit

It can be argued that political participation is increasing:

  • pressure groups are growing in number and membership

E.g. environmental groups, old age campaigners

  • There is increasing use of campaigning through social media

E.g. campaigns against road pricing, against sale of national forest

  • There has been a growth in examples of direct action

E.g. anti-tuition fees campaign, anti-iraq war campaign

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Enhancing Democracy - How democratic is the UK?


  • regular, free elections
  • free media, and many independent sources of political information
  • there are democratic institutions, notably local councils, devolved assemblies, parliament and government
  • there is freedom to vote, to stand for office and to form political parties or other political associations
  • Parliament makes governments continually accountable for its actions
  • referendums are held from time to time when important consitutional issues are to be resolved
  • a variety of parties and political associations such as pressure groups are allowed to flourish
  • freedom, equality and rights are protected bye the European Convention on Human Rights, by parliamentary statutes and by common law.
  • there is an independent judiciary that safeguards the rule of law
  • the rule of law applies - all are equal under the law
  • the freedom of information act enables citizens to access importatnt information about government and administration of the state.
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Enhancing Democracy - How Democratic is the UK?


  • unelected institutions persist in the form of the monarchy and the house of lords
  • elections are arguably not fair owning to the FPTP system
  • governements are elected on a minority of the national vote
  • the prime minister enjoys arbitrary prerogative powers.
  • there is no entrenched constitution so the distribution of political power is often uncertain
  • Parliamentary sovereignty means that individual rights and liberties are inadequately protected.
  • a great deal of power has been transferred to the EU, which has weaker democratic institutions.
  • arguably, political participation is declining
  • there is a growing degree of political disengagement.
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Enhancing Democracy - assessment of methods of im

Replacing the monarchy with an elected head of state


  • this would increase the democratic legitimacy of the head of state
  • it would make the head of state democratically accountable
  • an elected head of state would be able to settle political deadlocks
  • an elected head of state could increase popular political engagement


  • a political head of state might destabilise politics
  • such a head of state might give too much power to teh governing party
  • The UK would lose an important historical institution
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Enhancing Democracy - assessment of methods of im

Introducing an elected second chamber


  • this would increase the legitimacy of the second chamber
  • a democratic second chamber would be an effective check on government power


  • an elected second chamber might be less independent
  • it might check government excessively
  • it might challenge the authority of the commons
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Enhancing Democracy - assessment of methods of im

Reforming the electoral system


  • alternative systems would be fairer and give the elctorate more real choices, reducing the number of wasted votes
  • the house of commons would be more politically representative
  • it would increase the democratic legitimacy of MPs and government
  • The outcome would probably reflect the pluralistic nature of politics more accurately


  • proportional representation would remove the important MP - constituency link
  • multiparty government might ensue and be less stable. It would be more difficult to form a government if no party won an overall majority
  • there would be unpredictable consequences
  • voters might find it difficult to accept a new system
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Enhancing Democracy - assessment of methods of im

Increased use of referendums:


  • referendums would increase political awareness
  • they could be seen as a purer form of democracy
  • they would improve political education
  • they would increase political participation


  • too many voters might results in voter fatigue and low turnouts
  • the electorate might find many issues too complex to understand
  • referendums could lead to the tyranny of the majority. Minorities might be discriminated against
  • voters might be unduly influences by emotional irrational appeaks
  • voters might lost respect for representative institutions and for political processes in general
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Enhancing Democracy - assessment of methods of im

Introducing a codified constitution


  • a written constitution might stop teh drift towards excessive power of government and the prime minister
  • it would make citizens more aware of how the political system works
  • it might create more public engagement with the political system
  • rights and freedoms would be better protected


  • the political system would lost it's flexibility
  • it would destroy many political traditions and so reduce public attachment to politics
  • it might put too much power into thee hands of unelected unaccountable judges who have to interpret a constitution.
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Enhancing Democracy - assessment of methods of im

Decentralising the political system


  • governments are smaller scale and seen as more democratic
  • government would be less remote and closer to the people
  • there might be less tight party control over politics
  • it would strengthen local communities
  • the growing power of central government would be curbed


  • more powerful local and regional government would mean more variable state provision
  • citizens might take local and regional government less seriously resulting in low turnouts
  • tensions between central and decentralised government might increase.
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