Origins of democracy

The concept of democracy has a wide and varied meaning. Essentially, a democratic country is one in which the people take some part in deciding who will form the government, and where people (who have chosen to become politicians) can play a part in that government. It is important to remember that democracy has no single definition and can appear in a number of different forms. Different cultural groups, too, will have different attitudes to democracy.

A democratic system is one in which elections are held by secret ballot, and the people can freely choose to vote in the way they think fit, without the risk of intimidation or violence. In an ideal system, the electorate would turn out in high numbers to cast their votes in the particular area and election in which they are voting.

Most Western countries are liberal democracies, where the rights of individuals are stressed and participation by all is encouraged. This has become the dominant form of democracy since the Second World War, but it is linked into other forms of democracy. Most democratic societies use a combination of different forms of democracy. In the UK, we often come across the term ‘parliamentary democracy', as Parliament is democratically elected and governs by the will of the people.

Direct democracy is the original form of democracy, first practised in ancient Greece. It involved people making all their own decisions directly. As populations grew, however, the system of direct democracy was not considered viable.

Representative democracy, in which people choose, or elect, representatives to make decisions on their behalf, has evolved in the place of direct democracy. It is now the most common system worldwide, although elements of direct democracy continue to be used in some democratic countries. The most obvious way in which direct democracy continues to be used is in the holding of referendums.

Is ‘totalitarian democracy’ democratic?

Another form of ‘democracy’ is ‘totalitarian democracy’. This label is sometimes used to describe a country where the people are represented by a single individual or an elite group. The people do not vote in open and accountable elections, but the leadership claims to be acting on behalf of the people.

The main way to check whether a country is democratic is to decide whether it is pluralist. Pluralism is the most modern conception of democracy and involves people being represented by groups in which they are members. These groups all have the ability to compete with each other inside the political system. Therefore, no single elite group has ultimate power. Instead, power is dispersed among all the groups, with some being more influential than others.


The UK is democratic

> We know that the UK is a democracy because all elections in the UK are free from bias and interference. All adults can vote without difficulty in a secret ballot. The state has made sure that there are legitimate ways to cast a vote (such as postal and proxy votes) if people genuinely cannot get to their polling station on election day.

> There are no major barriers to standing for an elected office in the UK, unless you come from a group that might have compromised our democracy.

> We do have state-sponsored media, but these aim to be impartial and they have many free, commercial rivals.

> In the UK, we have freedom of expression, thought and association; it is only limited in certain key ways so that people’s rights and sensitivities are not trampled on.

> We have a pluralist society that enables parties, trade unions and pressure groups to operate freely within the confines of the law.

> Government is bound by the rule of law, and we have an impartial judiciary which can ensure that this rule of law is maintained to a high standard.

> Since 1929, when women became able to vote on equal terms with men, we have had general political equality for all.

> Our government is responsible to parliament, where we freely elect our representatives at least every 5 years. On polling day, parliamentary sovereignty returns to the people of the UK.

> Political corruption is rare and, when it does occur, such as with the Aitken and Archer scandals, the offenders are imprisoned to send out the signal that it will not be tolerated.

> Despite the recent trend towards the use of special advisers by Downing Street and by individual ministers, our civil service is still largely neutral.

The UK is not democratic

> Our first-past-the-post electoral system is often seen as unfair.

> Both our head of state and the second chamber are unelected.

> There are no significant limits on the government of the day – we have no codified, written constitution to bind our elected representatives.

> With a large majority, the party that is in government is supremely powerful and has the ability to introduce legislation that is not in its manifesto. This means that it can take policy actions that it is not mandated to implement, such as when Gordon Brown gave control over interest rates to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England in May 1997.

> Our prime minister is leader of the majority party in parliament and is not separately elected.

> The powers of the prime minister are wide-ranging and there are very limited controls on his or her extensive powers of patronage.

> Since the late 1980s, considerable power has been transferred from the hands of accountable, permanent staff to unelected quangos.

> Since 1997, we have had a government in the UK with a large majority that has exercised an excessive control over parliament.

> We do not have separation of powers between the head of state, the executive and the judiciary, and our citizens do not enjoy an entrenched Bill of Rights.

> Our government is secretive and has resisted the introduction of an extensive Freedom of Information Act.


Elections promote democracy principally by providing representation. The electorate can choose parliamentary representatives, from whom the majority party may form a government, and dismiss those representatives if they fail to represent the people according to their wishes. The electorate can remove from these representatives their mandate to govern.

Elections also promote democracy by enabling competing parties to put forward their manifesto ideas. This not only allows pluralist groups a chance to voice their opinions, but also acts as a way of educating the voters. In the run-up to elections, the electorate is informed in a number of different ways, including party election broadcasts on radio and television, manifestos, leaflets, canvassing, posters and even loudspeakers on street corners.

The result of all these tactics, in a democracy, should be to prevent government from implementing extreme policies, and for the election to act as a legitimate means of gaining power. It is also worth noting that sovereignty returns (briefly) to the people on the day of the election, and this in itself promotes democracy as people are reminded of their duty to vote.


Compulsory voting (CV) places a legal compulsion on citizens to go to cast their vote. The aims of CV are to improve voter turnout and make citizens aware of their responsibilities in a democratic society. In countries where CV exists, the penalties for citizens refusing to exercise their right to vote range from a fine, to the withdrawal of certain government benefits, to the 'naming and shaming' of non-voters.

Some political commentators support the introduction of CV in countries such as the UK, which has seen a drastic fall in voter turnout in general elections during the last 20 years - down to just 59% in 2001. Such analysts believe that the introduction of CV would rapidly increase voter tirnout, particularly among those groups who are disadvantaged, if the government punishment were a reduction in the services and benefits for the poorer groups in society. Traditionally, working class groups have a much lower voter turnout than the middle classes.

Compulsory voting currently operates for at least some elections in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Luxembourg and Singapore. When CV was abolished in the Nehterlands in 1970, voter turnout immediately dropped by 10%.


Many political commentators worry about the introduction of compulsory voting because it infringes individual political freedoms and, potentially, debases political institutions.

There is a risk associated with forcing a person who is ignorant of politics to vote. If a voter has not read the literature that is available at election time, or does not understand the context in which that information exists, then forcing him or her to' vote may be counter-productive. It means that people will participate without conviction and, rather than improving the level of political literacy (which would lead to greater legitimacy for the system), it could mean that parties would pitch their policies to the lowest common denominator. The impact of this course of action is that CV could lead to a situation whereby the 'tyranny of the majority' is established.

Another factor associated with forcing people to vote is that the political system can be discredited in the process. If individuals who do not want to contribute to democratic society are forced to participate, they might choose to support parties that do not normally receive many votes. This could lead to extremist groups, such as the British National Party, increasing their vote, which would only discredit the political system further.

In the UK, every citizen has the right not to vote, whether out of apathy or as a protest against the system. By removing this right, it can be argued that the government would be infringing individuals' rights. It is perhaps better to introduce other measures to counteract voter apathy, such as improving political education, introducing new, more proportional electoral systems or holding more regualr referendums.



> offsets socio-economic disadvantage

> addresses the problem of low voter turnout

> reduces the role of finance in elections

> helps balance rights and responsibilities

> improves political education


> may result in the 'tyranny of the majority'

> devalues the political process

> difficult to implement

> favours an adversarial system

> does not tackle the causes of apathy


Majoritarian systems

Majoritarian systems, such as first-past-the-post (FPTP), allow the voter only one vote. They work on the basis of a 'winner-takes-all' approach. The idea is that the candidate with the largest number of votes per constituency wins the seat. Candidates do not have to get more than 50% of the vote; nor do they have to win by any particular margin. Hence some seats are narrow victories (these are usually known as marginal seats) and others are won by huge amounts (safe seats).

The following advantages are claimed for this type of electoral system:

> it usually produces a clear outcome and a strong government

> it is easy for the voter to understand

> it maintains a link between MPs and their constituencies

> it allows the straightforward implementation of the winning party's manifesto.

Proportional systems

Proportional representation (PR) systems, such as the single transferable vote (STV), can allow the voter more than one vote. They work on the basis of having multiple representation either per area (i.e. larger constituencies but more representatives per constituency) or per chamber. Systems such as the additional member system (AMS) have two types of representative, one from constituencies and one from party top-up lists.

This type of system is claimed to have the following advantages:

> it produces better representation of age, race, gender and social class

> it is more representative of the electorate as a whole - single party administrations elected using these systems need to achieve more than 50% of the vote.


EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT - regional list system (closed)
UNITED KINGDOM PARLIAMENT - first past the post
N Ireland - single transferable vote (STV)
Scotland - additional member system (AMS)
Wales - additional member system (AMS)
Greater London Assembly - additional member system (AMS)
Mayoral elections - supplementary vote (SV)


The European Parliament became directly elected in 1979. The aim was that all elections would eventually take place using proportional representation (PR) rather than majoritarian systems. On its election in 1997, the Labour government decided to implement a regional party list system for these elections.

The idea of the regional party list system is that the nation is divided into regions for which the party headquarters choose lists of candidates. The form of this regional list is 'closed', as the electorate does not get a choice of candidates but only parties. The party headquarters decide on the priority of their candidates. The higher up the list candidates appear, the greater the chance they have of being elected.



In common with the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) for local and regional elections. This system is thought to be best suited to overcoming some of the religious and sectarian problems that exist in the province. For example, key features of the system are multi-member constituencies and preferential voting, where voters place candidates in order of preference. As this system ensures that in each constituency there are a number of representatives, whatever a person's political or religious preference, social class, racial group, age or gender, there is usually a represntative that the voter would feel comfortable in contacting.

The new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were elected for the first time in May 1999, and both use the additional member system (AMS). This is a hybrid system that uses both first-past-the-post and top-up lists that are put together by party headquarters.

In the 2003 elections, the Scottish National Party won 27 seats. It is the second largest party and is the official opposition. Labour, with 50 seats, is the largest party, but does not have an overall majority in the 129-seat parliament, so it is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives won 3 constituency seats, plus 15 others from the party lists. The biggest gains in 2003 were made by the Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens, both winning 6 seats. The electoral system has resulted in no single party winning an overall majority of the seats, thus producing coalition government.

In Wales, 40 seats are elected using FPTP while the remaining 20 use the top-up lists. In 1999, Labour failed to win an overall majority and formed a minority government, followed by a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In 2003, Labour won 30 seats and was able to form a majority government in the Welsh Assembly for the first time.

The elections to the Greater London Assembly also use AMS. The elections for the Mayor of London (and other mayors) use the supplementary vote (SV), where voters are given two votes, as opposed to just the one given under majoritarian elections.

The advantages of AMS are that representation is, arguably, fairer. So women, ethnic minorities and people of various ages are probably better represented than they would be otherwise. This system is also thought to be easier for the voter to understand because it retains the FPTP system with which the electorate is already familiar.


In December 1997, following its landslide victory, New Labour established the Independent Commission on the Voting System to consider alternatives to first-past-the-post for general elections. Chaired by the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Jenkins, the commission was asked to observe the requirement for broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies. Ten months later, the Jenkins Report was published, providing details of a unique hybrid system named 'AV top-up'.

AV+, as it became known, suggested that voters should have two votes.

The first vote was to be cast using another majoritarian system: the alternative vote (AV). This was to account for 80 - 85% of MPs (530-560 MPs), the only difference being that MPs would have to gain 50%+1 votes in their constituencies, as opposed to their current majorities of as little as 1 vote more than the next candidate. This element of AV+ suits both Labour and Conservative parties as it would continue to provide geographical representation and strong governments.

The remaining 15 - 20% of seats would be filled from the second vote, where electors vote for a party. The party provides lists of candidates, who are then elected from the list as 'top-up' MPs. The concept of the second vote is supported by the smaller political parties as it would increase their representation at Westminster.

Campaigners on issues such as gender, age, race and disability are also in favour of the 'top-up' system, as it enables parties to put forward non-traditional candidates.

The main disadvantage of the second vote is that it creates two types of MP, and the non-constituency based MP may be able to achieve quicker promotion than the constituency MP, who will have a heavier workload.

Whatever the merits of the AV+ system, it has been ' kicked into the long grass' by the Labour government. There is little enthusiasm among Labour MPs for any change(and even less among Conservative MPs), as a more proportional system would threaten their seats and, possibly, the chances of forming a one-party government with a large majority.