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Elections & Voting Explained

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What is Representative 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

What does a representative democracy look like?

In a Representative Democracy they instead are decided by elected politicians.

By electing MPs we are entrusting someone else to take decisions on our behalf, and the same applies to members of the European, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Parliaments, local councils and the Police and Crime Commissioners.

One problem is that not everyone has voted for the person who gets elected and so minorities may not feel that they are really represented.

The problem is bigger because under the first past the post system that we have in Westminster elections and also when many people do not vote, the person elected to be our representative may only have got there by the support of a small proportion of the voters.

There is also the question of whether MPs act for all groups in society and whether they are socially representative of these groups.

Nevertheless, MPs do take up the issues that their constituents present to them.

The Mandate and the Manifesto

The British system of Representative Democracy has depended on ideas of the Mandate and the Manifesto:-

The idea of a mandate

The idea of a Mandate related well to the British two party system of the Liberals and Conservatives before 1914 and Labour and the Conservatives after 1929.

One of the two parties would almost always win the election in the sense that it had a majority of seats in the House of Commons, though not actually a majority of the votes cast, and this would give it the authority to run the country.

The general election was seen as a choice by the voters as to which party they wanted to form the Government.

The leader of the winning party became the Prime Minister and within the British Constitution this gives considerable powers, often without even needing the consent of Parliament.

The Government would carry out its policies and deal with problems that arose and then seek a new mandate from the voters after four or five years, which it might get or, instead, the other party might get.

The growth of smaller parties since the 1970s has made the idea of the mandate more difficult to apply.

In 2005, Labour won a comfortable majority of seats under the First Past the Post electoral system but only had the support of 35% of those who had voted and, given the low turnout, there were far more non-voters than Labour voters.

The idea that voters were clearly giving Labour a mandate to rule is less clear than in previous elections.

When the Conservatives did not win a majority of seats in the 2010 general election and entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it could be argued that, as the two parties had 59% of the vote in total, they had a clear mandate.

The opposite argument is that, as neither Conservative nor Liberal Democrat voters had voted for a Coalition or the programme that the parties agreed after the election, there was no mandate at all.

Another problem with the idea of the mandate is that it only sees the voters being involved every four or five years when the general election is held but the modern election expects to have more of a say than that.

The manifesto

British parties produce a fairly detailed Manifesto during the election campaign containing the policies they would carry out.

This is published and widely available, including now also on the internet.  This does not happen in many other countries, such as France and the United States, where candidates address issues in more general terms.

The idea in Britain has been that the winning party’s mandate gives it the authority to carry out its manifesto commitments.

A Government will spend the first part of its period in office carrying out its manifesto and then new problems in the later period of Government will come along that need new policies.

The parties that have lost the last election may have carried out an internal review of policies while the Government will promote the things that it has done in the manifesto and develop these further.

In either case, the party leadership will control the final manifesto wording, although, when the Labour Party moved to the left in the early 1980s, its National Executive Committee tried to exert more control.

Parliamentary candidates send out a local election address to voters which will include national manifesto commitments and possibly pledges on local issues as well.

The manifesto has a special significance.

If the party leadership, once in power, tries to carry out policies contrary to their election manifesto, backbench MPs of their party may object and even use this as a reason to rebel against the Government in a Parliamentary vote. In a constitutional sense it is important as well.

 In 1945, the Conservative majority in the House of Lords, faced for the first time by a large Labour majority in the House of Commons, agreed to what has been called the Salisbury Convention, after the Conservative leader of the time.

The Convention holds that the House of Lords will not vote defeat or unduly delay any legislation which carries out a commitment in the Government’s manifesto.

Since the Government was elected in 2005 by just over a quarter of voters, the Convention has begun to be questioned.

It was also a problem that the Coalition Agreement, which was the basis of the Government’s legislation, was not the same as either of the two coalition parties’ manifestos.

The Lords only just failed, by a small majority, to seriously delay the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill, which reorganised the NHS, and which was in the Coalition Agreement but not in the Conservative manifesto.