Representative Democracy and Elections

Representative Democracy and Elections




The word “Democracy” derives from the Greek words “demos” and “kratos” meaning “people” and “rule” respectively such that it may be broadly defined as the rule of the people and, indeed, Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as “Government of the people by the people for the people. However despite the apparent clarity of his definition several difficulties arise once the term “Democracy” is considered in more detail.


It then becomes necessary to distinguish between Direct Democracy where citizens participate actively in governing their own political affairs Representative Democracy where the people elect representatives to carry out the business of government.


Representative Democracy is usually equated with Liberal Democracy which describes the political system which originated in the USA and Western Europe and has subsequently been adopted in many so-called Third World countries and may gradually be well established in the former USSR and its former satellites in Eastern Europe. Liberal Democratic regimes may be classified as either Presidential or Parliamentary systems and there are also important variations within these broad categories


Representative democracies are based upon several interrelated principles:

  1. the existence of regular, free, fair elections based upon universal suffrage and secret ballots;
  2. the existence of competing political parties offering electoral choice;
  3. the existence of electoral laws supervised by an independent judiciary;
  4. freedom of speech and association ;
  5. freedom to stand as an election candidate;
  6. “reasonable” relationships between votes cast and representatives elected;
  7. availability of accurate unbiased political information.


If provisions 2-7 are in place elections would be reasonably democratic but the existence of representative democracy demands also that executive activity is bound by the rule of law, that legislative scrutiny of the executive is efficient, that the Judiciary is independent of the executive, that pressure groups exist which can influence the political process between elections, that citizens have the right to political protest and that the rights of minorities are respected.


It follows therefore that the existence of democratic elections are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the existence of representative democracy. Bearing in mind this important conclusion let us now assess in more detail the functions of General Elections in representative democracy as in the case of the UK.



  • Functions of General Elections in the UK



The Timing of UK General Elections


The Septennial Act of 1715 provided for General Elections to be held at least every 7 years but this term was reduced to 5 years in the Parliament Act of 1911. Within this 5 year period the actual timing of the General Election could be determined by the current government since Monarchs are always prepared to accept the advice of the Prime Minister in relation to the timing of the General Election and this fact gave considerable electoral advantage to current governments which to some extent were able to choose General Election dates which were favourable to their own re-election.


Proposals for Fixed Term Parliaments were an integral part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement which was published after the General Election of 2010 and the Coalition Government soon introduced a Fixed Term Parliament Bill which received the Royal Assent on September 15th 2011. This Act fixed the date of the next General Election at May 7th 2015 and provided for subsequent 5 year terms


Under the terms of the Act the Prime Minister can , however alter the General Election date by up to two months via the use of a Statutory Instrument and General Elections can also be triggered before the 5 year period has elapsed in the following circumstances:

1.    If  a Motion of No Confidence in the Government is passed and no over-riding Motion of Confidence is passed within 14 days of the original Motion of No Confidence and if in the opinion of the Speaker no alternative government can be found within the House of Commons.

2.    If a motion for an early General Election is agreed either by at least Two Thirds of the House of Commons or without any division. [In the original version of the Bill a 55% Majority was to be required to secure the early general election but this was subsequently increased by amendment to Two Thirds.]


The actual passage of the Bill created some difficulties for the Government but these were eventually overcome.

1.    Labour and Plaid Cymru tabled an alternative amendment proposing 4 year fixed terms but this amendment was defeated.

2.    The Government was initially defeated in the House of Lords  which voted in favour of an amendment which would have caused the Act to lapse after a General Election unless it was renewed by Parliament ; the so-called “Sunset Clause”.

3.    However eventually the Lords subsequently voted in favour of a compromise amendment whereby the Bill was accepted but with an agreement to review it in 2010 and as stated the Bill received the Royal Assent on September 15th 2011


For further information on the Fixed Term Parliament Act you may consult the following links.


Click here and here and here and here for BBC coverage of the Passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill


It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the Fixed Term Parliament Act has been less than effective ibn ensuring that Parliaments would run for their full 5 year Terms and a proposal for the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act appeared in the 2020 Queen’s Speech although it is uncertain when such repeal will occur.

Click here and here for further information.




  1. General Elections are important foci for the recruitment of new political representatives. Prior to each General Election new prospective parliamentary candidates will have to be found to oppose sitting MPs and to replace sitting MPs who have declared their intention not to seek re-election. Successful candidates will be elected as MPs and may also in some cases go on to pursue careers as government ministers.
  2. It is claimed that General Elections play an important informative, educative role for voters. Governing parties attempt to defend their past record in government against the criticisms of opposition parties while all parties produce Manifestos outlining their future plans if elected to government. The past record of government, the effectiveness of opposition parties and all parties’ manifestos are scrutinised by the mass media so that individual voters are assisted in their choice of preferred General Election candidates.
  3. General Elections enable the voters in each constituency to choose between alternative candidates and thereby to elect MPS to represent them in the Legislature i.e. the House of Commons. Thus the outcome of the General Election determines the party composition of the House of Commons.
  4. Since the political party which secures an overall majority of MPs elected to the House of Commons will then be invited by the Monarch to form a government it is clear that General Elections also enable voters to choose indirectly which political party will form the next government. [If no party secures an overall House of Commons majority of MPs minority governments or coalition governments may be formed.]
  5. General Elections are an important mechanism for ensuring that governments are held accountable for their political actions. Governments will aim to implement manifesto promises and to govern effectively in the realisation that, if they fail to do so, they are unlikely to be re-elected in the next General Election. They will recognise also that the prospect of electoral defeat is further increased because a record of failure may discourage voters from believing that new policies will be successful unless, of course, future opposition policies are regarded as even less credible.
  6. General Elections provide some limited opportunities for voters to influence government policy directly. During the 4-5 year lifetime of a Parliament [5 years following the passage of the Fixed Term Parliament Act] both government and opposition parties may modify future policy plans in response to opinion poll trends in an attempt to enhance their prospects of electoral success. It is possible also that during the course of actual General Elections candidates may receive information from voters as to the popularity or otherwise of particular policies and that this information may have some effects on future policy formation especially, perhaps, in the case of the losing parties.
  7. Once MPs have been elected to the House of Commons and a government has been chosen by the winning party, that government can claim that it has a legitimate right to govern in accordance with its manifesto proposals. Expressing this point slightly differently the elected government can claim that it has a mandate to govern in accordance with its manifesto proposals although it should admit also that it has no mandate to introduce major policies not included in its manifesto. Given the complexity of party policy both Labour and Conservative parties have focussed especially on a limited number of manifesto pledges which could in principle enable future voters to assess more easily the extent to which major manifesto proposals have been implemented. However both parties have been accused in the recent past of failure on some issues to govern in accordance with manifesto promises.Examples?
  8. It is vital to note that the existence of General Elections within representative democracy in the UK does provide for a peaceful transition of power to a new government almost always formed from the political party securing most votes in the General Election. Recent political news from countries such as Burma and Pakistan shows the chaos which can arise where there are no procedures for the peaceful transition of power in accordance with the wishes of the people.


However as we shall now see UK General Elections are not a perfect mechanism for the representation of citizens’ interests.



  • Functions of General Elections in the UK: A More Critical Assessment


  1. It is open to question how informative and educational for voters the General Election process actually is. Party leaders and individual candidates may overstate both the advantages of their own policies and the disadvantages of their opponents’ policies while in some [but not all sections of the General Election may be politically biased and focussed on personalities, photo-opportunities and soundbites rather than on detailed coverage of political issues. Detailed analysis of the issues can be found but many voters do not have the time, the interest of perhaps the educational level to assess the effectiveness of party policies.
  2. Although General Elections are based on the principle of Universal suffrage rates of non –voting are high, for reasons which outlined elsewhere.
  3. It is argued that the operation of the FPTP electoral system is itself undemocratic in that the parties’ proportions of House of Commons seats won are not equal to their proportions of votes gained. The Labour Party gained considerably at the expense of other parties in the General Elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. We may note,for example, that the turnout in 2005 was 63% and that Labour gained 35.2 % of the vote meaning about 22% of the electorate but 55.1 % of the seats in the House of Commons. Recent General Election results are shown below.





  Vote % 1997 Seat % 1997 Vote % 2001 Seat % 2001 Vote % 2005 Seat % 2005 Vote% 2010 Seat % 2010 
Conservative 30.7 25 31.7 25.2 32.3 30.5 36.1 46.9
Labour 43.4 63.4 40.7 62.7 35.2 55.1 29.0 39.7
Liberal Democrat 16.8 7 18.3 7.9 22 9.6 23.0 8.8


  1. When voters vote for a particular political party their decisions may be influenced by social factors such as their social class, age, gender, region, religion and ethnicity and/or by the personalities and characteristics of the party leaders rather than their support for particular party policies. Also voters who are more influenced by party policies will not necessarily have supported all of the policies of the party which they have voted for.
  2. Once MPs have been elected they may interpret their responsibilities of representation in various ways. We shall have to consider a little later the textbook coverage of trustees, delegates, party representation and resemblance.

For an Excel Chart illustrating relatioonships between  % Shares of  the vote and  % Shares  of Parliamentary Seats in the General Elections of 2010-2019  [Note that the data for the SNP  refer  to the percentages of the Sottish vote and the percentage of the Scottish Seats] - Click Here

Do these data suggest that  the UK Electoral System is essentially undemocratic?

Click here for an article on the UK General Election 2019 from the Electoral Reform Society and then on links within Section 5 of the document

Here you will see that if the General Election had been held under different electoral systems  much more proportional results would have been generated.