Democracy can be defined as "government of the people, by the people, for the people". In a direct democracy, "by the people" would mean that every individual would have an opportunity to participate in decision making.

However, Britain (and every other democratic state) is a representative democracy - i.e. some individuals are elected to represent the views of others. They are accountable in that they can be recalled (i.e. not elected) at elections which take place at regular intervals.

Democracy usually takes this representative form for two reasons:

> it is not possible to consult directly the very large numbers of people who make up a modern state

> the decision making process is a complex one, usually involving many different considerations, influences, etc.

Therefore, representatives are entrusted with exercising their judgements in arriving at decisions.


Elections have a variety of functions, not all of which are mutually compatible. Different electoral systems will be more or less effective in fulfilling different functions. The functions of elections are:

> to give the voters a choice of who should represent them

> to elect representatives who will act on behalf of their community and of individuals in relation to government decisions and government departments

> to produce a legislature that reflects the main trends of opinion among the electorate

> to produce a government that is in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the electorate

> to produce a strong and stable government

> to confer legitimacy on elected governments.


The concept of the "mandate" can be defined as the right to govern. The "electoral mandate" can be defined as the right to carry out a particular political programme as approved by the electorate.

Legally and constitutionally, however, there is no limit to a government's mandate, providing it can sustain a majority of votes in the House of Commons. A government is elected to govern and is not obliged to carry out or not carry out any specific policies. For example

> the Labour government stated in its 2001 manifesto that it would not introduce top-up fees for higher education, but later did so

> there was no mention of Iraq or a war - but the government nevertheless went ahead with such a war.

The concept of the mandate can be useful to governments:

> Parties campaign on a set of policies usually contained in an election manifesto and promoted during speeches, election broadcasts, etc. If they win the election, they argue that this gives them the political as well as the legal right to implement those policies - even though few people will have actually read the small print of a manifesto. The introduction of the poll tax was a classic example of this scenario.

> New political circumstances can be used to justify introducing a new policy or not implementing a promised policy.


> It can be argued that a controversial policy not contained in a manifesto does not have the approval of the electorate.

> It can be argued that a government elected with less than 50% of the total vote does not have a mandate for fundamental change.

> A government with low opinion poll ratings, perhaps suffering by-election defeats, perhaps also at the end of a five year term, may no longer be able to claim whatever mandate it originally had.

Some governments will seek to sustain their mandate by extensive consultation with interest and pressure groups to ensure that their policies have a broad measure of support. Others may simply argue that, as they have a majority of seats in the Commons, that in itself is sufficient mandate.

Legally, a government's mandate lasts as long as it can command a majority of votes in the Commons.


Elections take place in Britain for:

> local government (county, district and parish councils)

> devolved and regional assemblies (Scotland, Wales, London)

> national legislature and government (Parliament)

> European assembly (the European Parliament).

Who can vote?

Citizens of Britain, or citizens of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, who are over the age of 18 are entitled to vote.

Excluded are peers, those convicted of serious criminal offences or of electoral offences (for a period of five years) and persons of 'unsound mind'.

The electoral register is compiled in October of each year and comes into operation the following February, for twelve months.

The franchise

Before 1832, only 3% of the adult population were able to vote. The 'Great Reform Act' of that year only increased the proportion to 5%. A number of Acts during the 19th century increased the proportion of men with the vote.

It was not until 1918 that women were able to vote - and then only those over the age of 30. It was only in 1928 that women were allowed the vote on the same terms as men (i.e. at the age of 21).

Even then, some people had two votes, through the University seats and through the business vote. It was not until 1948 that the principle of 'one person, one vote' was fully implemented.

The most recent change in the franchise was in 1969 when the voting age was reduced to 18.


Representation in Britain is on a geographical basis, with an emphasis on the link between the elected representative and his/her constituents.

> The basic electoral unit is the ward - it is the unit for representation on local authorities, with two or three members per ward on district councils and one member per ward on county councils. A number of wards together make up a local authority area - in Middlesbrough, for example, there are 21 wards with 48 elected members. The average number of electors per ward is between 4,000 and 5,000.

> For parliamentary purposes, the electoral unit is the constituency. The average number of electors in parliamentary constituencies is 70,000, although this varies considerably in different parts of the country.

> Since 1999, European elections have taken place on a regional basis, with between 4 and 6 Euro-MPs being elected per region, by a form of proportional representation (a closed regional list system).

Electoral boundaries are drawn up by the Boundary Commission, which is a permanent body which recommends new boundaries or any alterations to the Home Secretary.

Frequency of elections

> Local government elections are held on a four yearly cycle, with elections always taking place on the first Thursday in May. Different groups of councils have elections on different cycles - locally, Middlesbrough council had its last election in 2003 and will have its next in 2007.

> Euro-elections are held on a five year cycle: the last election was in June 2004, the next will be in June 2009. Elections take place in all EU member states at the same time.

> Parliamentary elections must take place at least once every five years, but there is no specific cycle of dates. The choice of the date of the general election is at the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day (unless the government is defeated on a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, as happened in 1979, in which case it must call a general election immediately).

This power of the PM gives a major political advantage to the governing party as a date can be picked to give them an electoral benefit - e.g. after a 'give-away' budget or before a down turn in the economy.


This system (also known as a simple majority system)is based on simple plurality in single member constituencies: the candidate with the most votes wins the seat - hence the expression "first past the post". It is not necessary for a candidate to have a majority of the votes cast - merely one more vote than the nearest rival. The elector has a straightforward choice, but cannot express preferences or priorities.

Advantages of this system

> the voting and counting procedures are simple and easy to understand

> it maintains a direct link between an MP and a constituency - allowing personal contact between electors and their representatives

> it usually produces strong, stable governments without the need for coalitions.

Criticisms of this system

> it rewards parties with support concentrated in particular areas, but penalises parties with support which is evenly spread

> it favours the larger parties and under-represents smaller parties

> parliamentary seats gained do not reflect the national voting figures

> many votes are "wasted" in large majorities, or hopeless minorities

> candidates and governments can be elected on a minority of votes.

Thus, the present electoral system can be seen to fulfil some of the objectives of an electoral system (choice, strong government, etc) but falls short in other areas (accuracy of representation, representativeness of government).

Why is the electoral system being questioned?

There is considerable debate about the possibility of changing the electoral system to make it more accurately reflect voters' choices. Charter 88, the Electoral Reform Society, the smaller political parties and even some within the major parties advocate electoral reform, usually some form of proportional representation. There is also an argument for fixed term parliaments, to take the election date out of the hands of the governing party.

The reasons for questioning the present electoral system include:

> while the first past the post system might be appropriate in a two-party system, the advent of multi-party politics has exposed its inadequacies

> the smaller parties advocate PR, officially on the grounds of fairness but also out of self interest .


All electoral systems (including the present one) are proportional to some degree. The issue is how far should the system go towards proportionality in the light of other considerations.


In this system, the voter numbers the candidates in order of preference. At the count, the second and later preferences of the candidates with least votes are distributed to the remaining candidates until the final winner is elected.


> this system is claimed to result in the winner having a broader measure of support than in a simple majority system

> it retains the merits of a single member constituency


> it does not achieve a high degree of proportionality


In its simplest form, the list system means that the voter votes for a party rather than a particular candidate. Each party lists its candidates in its order of preference. The proportion of votes cast for each party determines the proportion of candidates from the list who are actually elected.

The lists can cover an entire country or smaller units, such as regions, but they must be much larger than single member constituencies for the system to work. In some countries there is a minimum percentage that a party must achieve before it gains any representation - in Germany (where the added members are elected from a list), it is 5%. This acts to prevent very small, perhaps extreme, parties gaining a foothold in the legislature.


> it can produce a very high degree of accuracy in a proportional sense

> it can also allow parties to ensure that a 'balanced' set of candidates are elected - for example, including an representative number of women, ethnic minority and other candidates.


> it eliminates the personal contact between elected MPs and constituents

> it puts too much power into the hands of the party bureaucracies which in effect can determine which candidates will be elected.

The list system is used in the Netherlands, Israel and for the added member part of the German elections. It is the system now used for elections to the European Parliament in Britain. A national list system was used for the recent elections in Iraq.


In this system, a half (or some other proportion) of all available seats are elected using the simple majority system (as in Britain); the remainder are allocated to each party to make the overall percentage of seats held as close as possible to the percentage of votes cast nationally.


> it retains the merits of single member constituencies

> it can achieve a high degree of proportionality


> it tends to give undue prominence to the smaller parties in coalition bargaining

> it creates two 'classes' of MPs

The added member system is used in Germany. It is also now used for the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and London Assemblies.


STV allows a high degree of individual voter choice, within multi-member constituencies, perhaps with six or eight seats.

Each voter can vote for as many candidates as they wish in the order of their own preference. To be elected, a candidate must reach a quota of votes (which can be calculated by a variety of formulae). The second and subsequent preferences of losing candidates are distributed to remaining candidates, as are any excess votes of those who reach the quota.


> it is argued that it can produce proportional results

> it avoids 'wasted' votes

> it also allows individual voters to select preferred candidates within parties and to choose the better candidates across parties


> it is relatively complex

> it dilutes of member-constituent contact

> it increases the probability of minority governments or coalitions

STV is used in Ireland and is favoured by the Liberal Democrats for this country.


This system has been proposed by the Jenkins Commission on Electoral Reform. It is similar to AMS, in that each voter votes twice:

> once to list candidates in order of preference in individual constituencies

> once to vote for a party or for a candidate on a party list in a county or city (comprising five or six constituencies).

80 or 85% of the Parliamentary seats (530 or 560) will be filled by successful candidates from constituencies; the remainder will be filled with top-up candidates from the party lists to make the county/city result more proportional to the overall votes cast.


> it retains single member constituencies

> it produces a more proportional result

> it minimises the likelihood of coalitions


> it is more complex than FPTP

> it creates two classes of MPs.


The introduction of a system based on proportional representation would, arguably, result in a fairer outcome of elections; but it would also have significant political consequences.

Multi-party Parliaments

> most of the smaller parties now in Parliament (the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists) are likely to gain increased representation

> parties who are not currently in Parliament (for example, the Greens) may gain some seats

> factions within the major parties may break away to secure their own representation.

On current voting patterns, it is less likely that one party will gain an overall majority in Parliament (i.e. there will be “hung Parliaments”). Governments would then have to rely on support from the smaller parties or from individual MPs on particular issues.

Increased importance of Parliament

If governments had to rely on the support of individual MPs and smaller parties, these would have increased influence over government - they would be able to "drive a hard bargain". This would mean that Parliament as a whole would have increased importance in relation to the government.

Coalition government

The major parties may seek to form a coalition government in order to secure an overall majority - i.e. two or more parties would share power, share Cabinet seats and agree joint policies. This could have a number of outcomes:

> there could be greater consensus over policies - they would be more likely to command widespread support if they were agreed by more than one party

> it could give a disproportionate amount of power to smaller parties, which could demand big concessions in return for their support

> coalitions can be unstable - if the partners fall out over policy or power

> coalition policies are not known at the time of the election - the policies eventually implemented may not have been put forward in the election - this undermines the concept of the electoral mandate.


No electoral system is perfect. Each one favours one or more of the objectives of elections - but not all of them. Broadly speaking, PR systems favour accuracy of representation; majority systems tend to stress strong and stable government. Different electoral systems produce different results. There is no one objectively "best" system. Governments and parties are likely to favour the system that will benefit them most electorally.



A referendum is a mechanism by which a specific decision can be put to the electorate as a whole, thereby by-passing elected representatives. It is typically organised by asking the electorate to answer "yes" or "no" to a question or to vote "for" or "against" a particular proposition.

In favour of referendums

> they are an exercise in direct democracy, enabling the entire electorate to participate in decision making

> it is argued that decisions arrived at by referendum are more likely to reflect the electorate's wishes than ones taken by representatives

> it is argued that fundamental constitutional matters (for example, EU membership) should be decided directly by the electorate

> similarly, it is sometimes claimed that major moral issues could best be decided in this way

> they could help make the electorate more aware of the issues involved in any decision.

Against referendums

> the electorate is unlikely to have a full grasp of all the issues and arguments involved in any decision

> most decisions, especially constitutional and moral issues, are both complex and sophisticated, and are not appropriate for a simple yes/no question

> the supremacy of Parliament is undermined if some decisions are taken away from it

> it is difficult to devise neutral questions or propositions - i.e. ones which do not lead to a particular answer

> the electorate may vote for or against the government of the day, rather than on the actual issue of the referendum.


There has been no tradition of referendums in Britain until relatively recently. They were regarded as "alien" - something used by dictators and demagogues, and were thought to undermine Britain's tradition of representative democracy.

The first ever (and so far only) national referendum was in 1975 on continuing membership of the EEC. The result was a 2:1 majority in favour.

The second major referendum, in 1979, was not a national one. In fact there were two separate referendums, one in Scotland, the other in Wales, on the subject of devolution of powers. Neither of them produced a sufficient majority to go ahead with devolution at that time.

Referendums in the 1990s

With the advent of the Labour government in May 1997, there was a renewed interest in referendums. The new government saw referendums as a means of

> extending democracy, and

> entrenching significant political decisions which have constitutional implications.

Scottish devolution 1997

A referendum on the creation of a Scottish Parliament with tax varying powers was held in September 1997, with a relatively high turnout and with a clear majority in favour of the government's proposals.

Welsh devolution 1997

A referendum on proposals for a Welsh Assembly was held shortly after the Scottish referendum, but with a less clear cut result - the turnout was just over 50% and there was a very small majority in favour of the government's proposals.

London Assembly and Mayor

In May 1998 there was a referendum on the creation of a London Assembly and an elected Mayor for London. This was supported by all main parties and, because of the lack of controversy, there was only a small turn-out (about 30%). The result was a big majority in favour and the new system was introduced in 2000.

Mayoral referendums in local government

There have been 30 or 40 referendums in local authority areas to decide whether to adopt the mayoral system of political control. Only 11 areas have approved the idea so far.

Regional government

The Labour government held a referendum on possible regional government in the North-East in 2004, which resulted in a significant majority against. It is unlikely that any further regional referendum will take place in the forseeable future.

Future referendums

The government has promised a referendums on the EU constitution (sometime in 2006) and on entry to the euro, if and when that is proposed.


Referendums are a form of direct democracy which have been treated with great suspicion by British politicians over the years. The early referendums were largely used to solve party management problems.

The New Labour government appeared to be keen to broaden democracy by allowing more direct involvement in major political decisions – for example, in Scotland and Wales. However, even here there was some political calculation - they clearly believe that the decisions arrived at by referendum will be very difficult for any successor government to change, at least not without another referendum.

It is also clear that Labour will not risk calling a referendum on the euro until the government is reasonably certain of being able to get a positive result. They would not wish to be defeated in a referendum on a major policy issue which they were supporting.