What are the functions of elections in promoting democracy?
- Representation - In a representative democracy, elections are the means by which a large group (the electorate) selects a much smaller group - representatives or MP's to act on its behalf, and in doing so identify who should be in government.
- Participation for citizens in government (indirect government).
- Influence over policy - Elections allow voters to have their policy preferences heard and to thereby influence the political agenda. Voters choose the party offering a manifesto of policies and promises that best meet their values or interests, but only have limited ability to influence individual decisions. Election defeat can, sometimes, force a party to rethink its policies that turned out to be unpopular at the polls (e.g. Labour's 1983 policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament).
- Accountability - 'Going to the country' every 5 years is one of the ways in which government is held accountable for its performance in office. The record of the government party is often the deciding factor in how people vote. On an individual basis, MP's may be held accountable for their political performance in their constituency too. However, this is unlikely to be an overriding factor unless the MP in question has an unusually good or bad reputation.
- Citizen education - Election campaigns provide citizens with information on major political issues, the policies of the main parties, the government's record etc. In theory, this allows the citizen to make an informed choice about how to vote, but in practice, the information provided in an election campaign is often imperfect and prone to media manipulation.
- Legitimacy - Free and fair elections provide legitimacy for the political system as a whole. By their act of voting, even for the losing party, citizens give their assent to the workings of the political system. The government also gains legitimacy, as by winning an election it can claim to be both representative of and responsible to, the people.
What are the criticisms/limitations of the democratic role of elections?
The system for elections to the Westminster parliament is inherently unfair and, it is argued, poses serious problems fro democracy
- Both main parties benefit from FPTP achieving commons majorities unwarranted by their popular vote. Landslides have occurred with relatively small shifts in public opinion as occurred in 1997 and 2001 with new Labour. In fact no government since 1945 has managed to win even 50% of the votes cast, and this can lead to what lord Hailsham once called an 'elective dictatorship', where the party in power dominates parliament with a large majority, but without the proven support of the majority of the voters.
- Bais in the system has accentuated the problem as the redrawing of the constituency boundaries has led to a more efficient distribution of the votes for Labour.
- Votes are of unequal value as differences in size of constituency mean that the electors in a small constituency are more likely to influence the result than those in a large one.
- Wasted votes…