Revision:Edexcel as politics - democracy and political participation

For Edexcel AS Government and Politics new spec (from September 2008)

by Origami Bullets

Demos – people (or “the mob”), Kratos – Power

Democracy – rule by many; Oligarchy – rule by few; Monarchy – rule by one

Aristotle added economic element to above definitions. Argued that in a state where only a few were poor, but they were the rulers, that was a democracy.

Abraham Lincoln - “government of the people, by the people, for the people”

Types of Democracy 
 Direct Democracy – Athenian model. 5th century BC, 40,000 male citizens, 40 assembly meetings a year, majority wins in votes, directly determined laws. 

  • Principles surviving in modern democracy: 
    • all citizens have right to vote and stand for office 
    • duty of all citizens to actively participate 
    • decisions should be made by majority vote 
  • Principles not surviving in modern democracy 
    • untrained, unelected executive 
    • randomly chosen presiding officer with 1 day term 

Today's society is too large for direct democracy and it needs time, commitment and informed citizens (in Ancient Athens, most were illiterate and ill-educated). We now use referendums (e.g. Switzerland, top down, government decides wording & timing & if it even happens) and initiatives (e.g. some US states, bottom up), as well as internet petitions (, online consultations e.g. on FoI, and a “People's Panel” (conducted by MORI on behalf of government. 
 Representative Democracy – people choose someone else to make decisions for them e.g. UK, USA. Representative is still accountable (see Burke – voting by conscience (or party line), not wishes of constituents). Not particularly representative as MPs overwhelmingly white, male, middle class and over 50. Electoral system may disadvantage smaller parties. Undermined by referenda and the Lords. 
Participatory Democracy – a compromise between representative democracy and direct democracy through use of public inquiries, advisory referendums and consultative bodies 
Totalitarian Democracy – people can only vote for carefully selected party officials e.g. Iraq under Saddam, Cuba under Raul / Fidel Castro Liberal Democracy – Limited Government (powers exercised within parameters laid down in constitution), government, rights of people stressed (i.e. civil liberties paramount), rule of law prevails, wide variety of beliefs tolerated (so long as they don't threaten state or peace of the community), political participation encouraged (inc. universal suffrage), minimum state interference in markets, state should play a 'night watchman' role i.e. safety net, free and fair elections, government's job is to remove obstacles to individual wellbeing. Political authority based on popular consent. A type of representative democracy e.g. UK, USA 
Pluralist Democracy – most modern idea about how Western democracies function. People represented by membership of various groups e.g. pressure groups
 Socialist Democracy – where state operate various mechanisms to try and improve equality e.g. welfare state e.g. German constitution states right to protection by welfare state

Democracy is . . .

  • a system where the power is ultimately in the hands of the people 
  • a political system organised on the basis that the government should serve the interests of the people


Two Fundamental Principles: 

  • Popular Control – rules and policies of society controlled by all members 
  • Political Equality – all members of society have equal influence over how rules are drawn up <p>

British Parliamentary Democracy – parliamentary democracy (parliamentary sovereignty, government drawn from parliament, government accountable to parliament, all laws passed by parliament, redress of grievances, guardian of mandate, represents the national interest) , representation based on party government, free and fair general elections (FPTP) min. every 5 years (not fixed term), universal suffrage, freedom of speech & press, elected legislature, MPs are party delegates, doctrine of mandate, not really representative (women, ethnic minorities, manual workers etc.), manifesto allegedly representative of national interest. Newspapers represent general public – at least their readership, politicians pay more attention than they used to to the press. Political parties aggregate demands of various sections of the community into a coherent political programme. To paraphrase Churchill, [representative] democracy may not be perfect, but it's the best we've got.

Is Britain a Liberal Democracy? Government is accountable, free & fair elections, peaceful, orderly transfer of power from one government to the next, losing parties accept democratic legitimacy of winning party, information freely available to citizens, right and liberties of citizens taken into account and protected, powers of government limited and controlled either by law or elected institutions (i.e. Parliament) or both, wide variety of beliefs, opinions, cultures and lifestyles tolerated.

Britain since 1997 – biggest majority since the Duke of Wellington returned from Waterloo, on the lowest share that a winning government has ever polled (35%). An elective dictatorship? - primus inter partes, prime ministerial government – not cabinet. Special advisers. Human Rights – 90-days, ID cards. HRA, FoI. Role of Commons – mere rubber stamping exercise, backbench rebellions almost irrelevant, have had 5 referenda since 1997 – Tories did 0 in 18 years. Devolution. HoL reform – Tony's cronies? <p>

Manifesto: is the document that sets out the party's intentions for the bills that they will introduce should they be elected. Voters base their decisions on these. Winning party's manifesto forms the basis of the mandate.
Mandate: is the authority to govern, granted to the party that wins the general election. Government must introduce measures from their election manifesto unless they have a good reason not to. Parliament tries to ensure manifesto commitments are stuck to. Gives the government the authority to take whatever action it deems necessary in an emergency ('doctors' mandate')

The Democratic Deficit is a lack of people taking part in political life and a lack of actual power they can use to influence political decisions. e.g.

  • non-elected posts in politics e.g. HoL
  • FPTP disadvantages smaller parties
  • parliament ineffective in scrutinising government
  • EU Parliament has jurisdiction over UK parliament

There is much evidence for the 'participation crisis' , although it must be noted that single issue politics is growing (see pressure groups):

  • party membership declining – only 500,000 (1.3% of electorate) in 2006. In 1981 it was 1.5m (4% of electorate). Biggest drop in Tories – gone from 1.25m to 250,000. However, pressure group membership is growing e.g. the RSPB has >1m members
  • voter turnout declining – in 1992 general election it was 78%, in 2001 it was 59% and in 2005 it was 61%
  • partisan dealignment - fewer feel naturally drawn to a particular party and fewer take active interest in politics. Due to rising income levels blurring class lines

We could try to improve this through the use of 'e-democracy' (but fraud risk, seem frivolous) and compulsory voting (but devalues a vote).

New and different forms of political participation include pressure groups, e-petitions ( – in 2007 1.8m people signed petition about road pricing, but government ignored it), also more traditional protests e.g. 1m people protested about Iraq in 2003 but were ignored by government. Protests are usually ignored except in the case of the poll tax riots in 1990. 'Citizen's juries' were set up by Brown when he became PM in 2007. They bring together people with a particular knowledge or interest in a subject and they speak to senior cabinet ministers on key issues.

Could make British politics more democratic by (according to Power Commission Report 2007) capping donations, reforming electoral system, elect HoL, each voter allocation £3 of public money to a party, initiatives, lowering voting & candidacy age to 16, logging and listing ministerial meetings with lobbyists and business representatives.

Referenda are held to resolve important constitutional changes. It would be a foolish government that ignored the result. Results usually come out in the government's favour because they choose timing, wording and existence of the referendum. If passed, it effectively becomes 'entrenched' and requires a further referendum to remove it. Plato said that people will not respect decisions they make themselves because they prefer to be led, not lead, because they believe that elected representatives know more / have better judgement. Issues can often be oversimplified by the tabloid press, could lead people to make a decision that they believe to be informed when they have only been informed by the likes of Rupert Murdoch – gives editors and proprietors too much influence. Expensive – possible that one side can fail due to lack of resources e.g. 1975 EU referendum when 'yes' side spent far more than 'no', had support of business – therefore money. Can be used to express displeasure with government (see below). Tyranny of the majority a danger e.g. cyclists vs. car driving majority, smokers vs. non-smokers. Not all questions can be answered with a yes / no answer e.g. abortion and euthanasia, but some can e.g. Euro. Help make decisions legitimate. Britain is becoming a consultative democracy. Some key UK referenda:

  • 1975 referendum about staying in EU. Wilson's Labour government was split over issue, but a decisive 67.2% 'yes' vote saved the government & resolved deadlock (Tory opposition was also split)
  • 1998 referendum on introduction of a London Mayor. Changed governance and implied rise in taxation, made consent essential
  • 1998 Good Friday Agreement – a decisive 'yes' vote was needed to make sure all sections of society were in favour & end violence. In 1973 there was a similar vote, but most Catholics boycotted it, so the result became irrelevant.
  • 2004 referendum on NE Assembly – decisive (77.9%) 'no' vote made government drop plans for more regional devolved assemblies. May have been lost due to the fact that the proposing minister, Prescott, was deeply unpopular.

Initiatives are a form of referendum, but these are called by the citizens themselves. In Switzerland, if 1% of the public sign up to a proposal within 18 months, then it will be put to a public vote, and if passed, it will become law. They are also legal in 24 US states e.g. Oregon. However, they are subject to emotions (as opposed to reasoned judgements) and tabloid campaigns.

Power is the ability to get people to do what you want them to, even if it is against their will. Can exist without authority e.g. person brandishing gun has power but no authority; armed policeman has power and authority

  • Coercion – use of force to achieve ends i.e. military
  • Economic – i.e. giving / not giving aid
  • Political – exercised by governments through persuasion, sanctions and incentives. Can result from either coercion or economic power.
  • Influence – weaker, affects decisions but cannot enforce them

Authority is the right to tell people what to do or the right to govern. Can exist without much or any power e.g. a teacher. Three types of authority (authority in Britain is based on all three):

  • Traditional authority – rulers call for the consent of the people, on the basis of continuity, history, respect for institutions and religious tradition. Used by monarchies.
  • Authority based on the charisma of the leader – a 'cult of personality' e.g. Stalin, Mao Zedong. Can also be used to apply to Tony Blair.
  • Legal, rational authority – i.e. based on elections (Brown has no legal, rational authority). Forms the cornerstone of all Western liberal democracies.

Sovereignty can be used in various contexts

  • Legal – ultimate political authority – power to make enforceable laws, exercised by UK Parliament, but shared with EU
  • Political – ultimate political power - in a democracy, political sovereignty is held by the people at elections and the government between them
  • External – legitimacy within a territory, as recognised by other states. Where right to govern is widely recognised, state can claim sovereignty