Citizen Participation In Representative Democracies

Citizen  Participation in Representative Democracies:  The UK



[It is important to remember that the subject matter of Politics can be defined broadly such that individuals can be seen as participating in political activity in their families, schools ,workplaces, clubs and similar institutions but we shall be concentrating here mainly on the political participation of citizens which may affect the activities of the governing institutions.]

Although we may distinguish broadly between direct democracy[where citizens participate directly in political decision making] and representative democracy[ where spokespersons are elected to govern on behalf of the citizens], it is also the case that in modern representative or liberal democracies individual citizens themselves have a range of opportunities to participate in political activity.

Firstly, in order for representatives to be chosen, individual voters may vote in the various types of elections which take place: in the UK these are General Elections, Local Elections, European Parliament Elections and Elections to the Devolved Assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The introduction of European Parliament and Devolved Assembly elections and the increased use of referenda have increased opportunities for political participation in recent years. The main features of these elections and the advantages and disadvantages of referenda will be described and analysed elsewhere

Most, although not all, of the candidates in these elections are likely to be members of political parties and, as well as voting for such candidates, individuals may also choose to become members of political parties, to participate in their activities, including their policy making activities, to vote for prospective election candidates and indeed for their party leaders, to influence the activities of party councillors, MPs , Members of Devolved Assemblies and  MEPs  and possibly to aim themselves to be selected as future election candidates for these political parties. The influence of local party members on Councillors, MPs, Members of Devolved Assemblies and MEPs must be analysed in terms of issues surrounding the possibly conflicting ways in which these elected politicians interpret their representative responsibilities.

Party members may do useful work in their constituencies particularly at election times but we may note that the results of General Elections may increasingly depend more on the abilities of national political leaders to present their policies and themselves effectively in the national mass media than on the efforts of local party workers. The overall influence of individual party members on actual party policy may in practice be rather limited but in recent years party members have been given the opportunity to vote in party leadership elections.

For an excellent detailed survey of the history Of UK General Elections click here

For a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper: Political Engagement in the UK: who is disengaged? Click here

Although voter turnout is currently low by historical standards an few people are members of political parties citizens do have other opportunities for political participation

  1. They may contact their MPs, Councillors, MEPs, Members of the Devolved Assemblies and/or the Mass Media about issues which concern them;
  2. they may vote in occasional referenda;
  3. they may sign petitions;
  4. they may wear emblems to show their support for particular causes
  5. ; they may choose to boycott the purchase of particular products for political reasons;
  6. they may attend political meetings;
  7. they may join demonstrations;
  8. they may support [perhaps financially] the activities of pressure groups without themselves becoming members or they may choose to join pressure groups in order to participate more actively in political campaigns.
  9. It is likely that individuals will be able to influence the political process more effectively as members of pressure groups than through their own independent actions.

The description and analysis of pressure groups is itself a substantial topic in its own right and we shall have to consider later the definition of pressures groups, the differences between pressure groups and political parties, the types of pressure groups, the methods of pressure groups, the relative powers of pressure groups and the ways in which the pressure group activity might strengthen or weaken the democratic process. It should be noted that [with the exception of the trade unions]it is mainly affluent and well educated individuals who have the time and the political skills to involve themselves actively and pressure group leadership positions are likely to be dominated by such individuals. Furthermore it is likely that pressure groups representing the interests of the rich are in general likely to be more effective than those representing the interests of the poor.

Pressure groups enable their members to influence the political process between elections often on specific rather than general political issues. Pressure groups essentially use some combination of the following methods: they may seek to influence directly government institutions at local, devolved, national and international level; they may seek to influence individual local councillors, MPs, Members of Devolved Assemblies and MEPs; they may seek to bring cases to court; they may seek to influence public opinion via mass media campaigns and demonstrations and they may involve themselves in direct action.

In recent years individuals have been increasingly prepared to participate in demonstrations and various forms of legal and illegal direct action. The organised opposition to the Poll Tax involved a campaign of non-payment and a series of demonstrations culminating in the London demonstration of March 31st 1990 which could be said to have led to a major riot. Other demonstrations were organised by the Countryside Alliance ,” a loose alliance of a very wide range of rural interests which mobilised 250,000 people for  a protest march in London against a ban on hunting with dogs. An even larger set of mass demonstrations – possibly exceeding I million people in London alone- protested early in 2003 against the imminent war on Iraq. This was probably the largest single public demonstration of political protest in modern British history.” {Prof Michael Moran: Politics and Governance in the UK 2005}

Demonstrations and /or direct action have occurred also against road and airport runway building, against the planting of GM crops, against experimentation on animals, against threats to the environment and against the alleged responsibilities of international financial institutions and multinational corporations for the continuation of Third World poverty.

Professor Michael Moran draws the following conclusions in relation to these new forms of political participation: “the revival of direct action of this kind thus shows that while there may be a decline in some forms of participation, other forms are rising. In particular, participation that is channelled through the institutions that are most closely tied to Westminster politics –such as voting and membership of the traditionally dominant parties that fight each other at Westminster is being displaced by this direct action.”



  1. Voter turnout in General Elections and membership of the main political parties have declined.
  2. However individual participation in formal politics has been increased as a result of the increased use of referenda and the introduction of elections to the European Parliament and the Devolved Assemblies.
  3. Individuals can participate as individuals in politics in several ways but their influence is likely to be greater if they join pressure groups in order to exercise influence.
  4. Participation is more likely to be effective for affluent well educated individuals. Members of disadvantaged groups such as the urban poor may feel excluded from the political process, a factor contributing to periodic urban riots.
  5. Increasing numbers of people are now prepared to participate in demonstrations while a smaller minority are prepared to participate in other forms of direct action some of which may be illegal and involve damage to private property and violence against persons.
  6. This leaves us with the moral question as to whether damage against private property and/or violence against the person can ever be justified even in a good cause.


Turnout in General Elections

Click here for a chart illustrating levels of turnout in UK General Elections 1918 -2019

Note that between 1992 and 1997 and between 1997 and 2001 there were significant declines in turnout such that  the 2001 turnout was the lowest since 1918 and although turnout has recovered to 67.3% by 2019 this remains low by historical standards

Several reasons have been advanced for the low electoral turnout in recent years.

  1. Individuals cite a range of practical reasons for not voting: it is inconvenient; they are away on the day of the General Election; they are not registered to vote and have received no polling card; they were prepared to vote by post but have not organised a postal vote. All of these reasons suggest some underlying dissatisfaction with or lack of interest in the political system since all of the cited practical reasons for not voting could be overcome easily if the non-voters actually wished to do so. The following points focus on possible reasons for voter dissatisfaction and/or lack of interest.
  2. Some people may have decided not to vote in General Elections since 1979 because only the outcome of 1992 General Election was slightly uncertain: it was virtually certain that the Conservatives would win in 1983 and 1987 and virtually certain that Labour would win in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Furthermore individuals are more likely to vote in marginal seats than in safe seats and these two points taken together suggest that some individuals may make a rational choice not to vote when they believe that their vote cannot influence the overall outcome of the General Election.
  3. The Major and Blair governments have been associated, rightly or wrongly, with issues of “Sleaze” and “spin” respectively which has reduced some voters trust in politicians
  4. It is possible that the increasing professionalisation of General Election campaigns has discouraged some potential voters from participation in General elections based upon what are perceived to be politicians’ attempts to deceive and mislead.
  5. Some people may believe that none of the main political parties have the political and administrative skills to solve the problems facing UK For example in the 2005 many voters were unimpressed by Labour’s record in government but believed also that the Conservatives, if elected, might be as ineffective or even more ineffective in government.
  6. Individuals may choose not to vote because their own preferred party has no chance of winning in their constituency and/or no chance of winning the General Election. Potential Liberal Democrat voters may be discouraged from voting because the FPTP electoral system discriminates against the Liberal Democrats.
  7. Individuals may believe that they are not being offered a meaningful choice because of the perceived similarities of the policies and political characteristics of candidates from different parties.
  8. In some cases individuals may adopt a Marxist analysis and may choose not to vote because they believe that the entire political system, while having the appearance of democracy, actually serves to protect the interests of the capitalist class.
  9. In the last 30-40 years there has been a general decline in party identification with the major parties. If fewer people identify with particular political parties fewer people, other things being equal are likely to vote for them. The decline in party identification is known also as partisan dealignment and will be considered later.
  10. There are linkages between voter turnout and age with young people being less likely to vote. This could mean that the young are most alienated from formal politics but they are also most likely to engage in other forms of non party political activity.
  11. Voter turnout tends to be lower in constituencies with above average unemployment rates and below average income levels where potential voters are more likely to feel that whichever party is elected to government their own situation is unlikely to improve.
  12. Voter turnout declined in 2001 particularly in some traditional working class, Labour voting constituencies where it may have been felt that Tony Blair’s New Labour government had devised policies more favourable to middle class voters than to working class voters. However perhaps this kind of abstention might have been less if there was any chance of a Conservative Victory…which there was not!

Click here for a table and here for a presentation from Ipsos Mori providing information on patterns of turnout in the UK General Election 2020



Your textbook provides detailed information on the use of referenda in the UK and on the arguments for and against the use of referenda.