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Elections & Voting Explained

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What is Direct Democracy?

There are two forms that democracy can take, representative democracy and direct democracy.

Although it is possible for them to exist side by side, they are very different in how they operate.

Democracy vests power in the people but an election then transfers power from the voters to a particular group of politicians so that the British public do not then directly take political decisions such as:-

        Whether Value Added Tax should be increased

        The level of university fees

        Whether assisted dying is legalised

        Whether people should be able to vote at 16

Despite the problem of representative democracy, it is the system in place across the democratic world.  This is contrasted with Direct Democracy which involves voters taking decisions themselves or seeking to influence decisions without doing so via elected representatives.

Examples of direct democracy

        A referendum, which can be national or take place in a particular area, and which involves the electorate in voting on a particular question. This may be binding on Government as with the recent AV referendum or it may be something that Government takes into account.  In Britain, the decision to hold a referendum has been taken by the national government or local authority but in some countries, such as Italy and Switzerland, if enough signatures are collected then a referendum has to be held. Referendums, as proven by the 2016 European Union Membership vote and the Scottish Independence vote, do not always close an issue or produce an agreed decision.

        People joining a campaign group such as opposing a new development or arguing for more rights for tenants in private rented housing. The campaign group may then use a variety of means of direct involvement to pursue its objectives such as a petition, a public meeting, a march, handing out leaflets or even civil disobedience such as that carried out by animal rights activists when breaking into laboratories were testing takes place on animals. The use of social media has become increasingly important for campaign groups.

        Parliament has set up a process by which people can initiate and sign a petition online and if 100,000 people sign it then the topic can be debated in Parliament.  However, an MP has to sponsor the topic and the Backbench Business Committee of MPs so the system is still controlled through the process of representative democracy.  This is similar to the Recall of MPs which is being considered by Parliament. MPs will only be subject to the recall process, which also requires public signatures if Parliament agrees that the MP has been involved in wrongdoing.  In other countries recall can be initiated by citizens alone.

        Some local councils have decentralised power to neighbourhood committees over some decisions and spending though the extent to which these really involve the public varies.

So direct democracy depends on referendums on clearly defined topics or decisions at a very local level that people can easily relate to, or on the activity of campaign groups. An issue such as whether to build the HS2 railway line cannot be taken at a local level and is complex with long term effects and so difficult to put to a referendum.  Even in Switzerland, where there are regular referendums, the vast majority of decisions are still taken by elected representatives. Campaign groups may not be democratic in the sense that they may involve small numbers of the public.

Political theorists have argued that both representative and direct democracy depends on there also being a deliberative democracy so that issues are carefully discussed and the implication of decisions understood by people. The media can play a part in this but oversimplification and one-sided presentation of issues undermine deliberative democracy. Political education and public meetings can both help to ensure that discussion takes place and on-line discussions, if free from the abuse that often pervades them, can allow people to discuss issues without physically meeting together.