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All About Parliament

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Do UK voters take political decisions?

In the UK political system, a general election transfers power from the voters to a particular group of politicians. This means the British public do not directly take political decisions such as:-

  • Whether Value Added Tax (VAT) should be increased
  • The level of university fees
  • Whether assisted dying is legalised
  • Whether people should be able to vote at 16

They are instead decided by our Elected Representatives in the UK Parliament. 

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

Does this transfer of power work?

There are a number of reasons why votes may feel upset by the actions of their elected MP:

  • They did not vote for the person who gets elected
  • Minorities feel they are really under-represented. 
  • Due to First-Past-the-Post many MPs are only elected by a small proportion of eligible voters
  • They may not have been able to or allowed to vote and feel their MP does not speak for them if they had no say
  • They may feel their MP does not act for all groups in society.

So, what is direct democracy?

Despite these problems the system across the democratic world is Representative Democracy. 

This is contrasted with Direct Democracy (sometimes called Participatory Democracy) but this type of democracy can only really operate:-

  • At a very local level when people in a local area can get together, debate issues and take collective decisions
  • By holding referendums on issues

But 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.

In Britain we have had only a limited number of referendums and only three have been nationwide. One in 1972 on joining what is now the European Union, the second in 2011 on whether to change to the Alternative Vote electoral system and the third in 2016 on whether to remain or leave the European Union.