AS Politics, Democracy, Unit 1
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Is there a Democratic Deficit in the UK?

democratic deficit  occurs when government or government institutions fall short of fulfilling the principles of democracy in their practices or operation or where political representatives and institutions are discredited in the eyes of the public. In the UK there has been a discussion in recent years that Britain’s democracy is flawed. Politicians are held in low esteem. Parliament seems outdated and the expenses scandal exposed just how many politicians had lost a duty to public office.

One of the main factors forwarded to argue there is a democratic deficit in the UK is the low levels of voter turnout and widespread disillusionment with the political system. In 2001 the UK received a general election turnout of 59.4%, the lowest since the start of universal suffrage in 1918. A greater number of voters voted against the Labour government than those that elected them. In 2010 it increased to just below 65%. In effect, low turnouts bring to question government legitimacy and the strength of it’s electoral mandate. Ergo, if citizens are having little influence in politics, democracy weakens as it is no longer really a government “of  the people, by the people and for the people”.

On the other hand, defenders of the status quo claim that there is not a democratic deficit in the UK because citizens of this country, unlike many others,  have their human rights and freedoms guaranteed under the rule of law. Evidence of this can be found in the 1998 Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act, as well as Britain’s continued membership of the European Court of Human Rights. In addition to this, reforms are taking place to develop our country so it is more democratic and fair, this is evident in Labour’s 1997 pledge to increase the use of referendums and even, David Cameron’s backing of e-petitions and increased devolution of powers to Scotland and the regions, as a result of the close verdict of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

With exception to the Scottish independence referendum (84.5%), turnouts for referendums have been historically poor, for instance the 2011 AV referendum got a turnout of just 42.2%.  Local referendums have often had lower turnouts, in Sunderland the referendum for a directly elected mayor (2001) had a turnout of 10%. As for e-petitons, Parliament’s Backbench Select Committee still retains the sole power to abandon or debate an issue that may have generated the 100,000 signature threshold gained online. It may be that e-petitions cause more disillusionment for the above reasons.

Another defense of democracy in Britain is that the UK, unlike other nations, has a system of free and fair elections and that therefore there cannot possibly be a deficit. Britain’s democracy has evolved overtime. Women got the vote on equal terms to men in 1928 and plural voting was abolished in 1948. Now UK citizens can begin voting at the age of 18, and they are allowed to vote under a secret ballot, elections held every 5 years. These elections are organised by the Electoral Commission, not by government, and are world renowned for being free fair and unbiased. The transition following any given election is peaceful, with the leader of the winning party being sword into office within a matter of days. Even the negotiation in 2010 as a result of a hung parliament went relatively smoothly, with agreements resolved within days (not the months seen in some countries). The fact that the voting age begins at 18, and people of all classes can vote, ensures that party policies are both balanced and fairer to all sections of society.  Citizens have a duty to communicate how they feel about the government by voting for them or for voting for someone else.

Some suggest elections are not fair because of the First Past the Post voting system. Being a simple plurality system of voting; FPTP favours two party dominance between the Labour and Conservative party. In the 2010 general election, the Labour party got 29% of the vote and gained 258 seats, where as the Liberal Democrats only got 6% fewer votes but got 201 fewer seats.  FPTP discriminates against smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats who have a low concentration of support and so are unlikely to gain a majority of votes in any one area. FPTP also promotes tactical voting (people voting for parties they don’t like to stop parties they like even less getting to power) and it increases the number of wasted votes (votes which do not help to elect a candidate). In 2010 it was found that 15.7 million, or over 1/2 the votes cast in the general election of that year, were wasted and the general election would have produced the exact same result if those 15.7 million voters stayed at home. Therefore one can conclude that the FPTP system undermines democracy as it creates “disproportionate outcomes” for general elections, and this is argued to be “un-democratic”. It also contributes to voter apathy as voters assume that any vote they make would be a wasted one if they vote for a minority party, or if they live in an area where their candidate of choice is going to win anyway (more than half of the seats in parliament are safe seats).

In 2010 the Lib Dems in the coalition government proposed another system called, The Alternative Vote. This system is a majoritarian one that ensures that the winning candidate reaches the 51% majority, via 2nd or 3rd preferences if necessary, so that legitimacy is sustained. Unfortunately, when it came to the 2011 referendum , most Tory and some Labour politicians campaigned against AV, resulting in a convincing defeat for the motion (32.1% of voters supported the motion and 67.9% opposed it). Reformers argue that politicians could be the factor hindering democracy in the UK by their unwillingness to promote serious change or reform of our electoral system, since it’s against their interests to do so.

Fundamentally, there has been a growing ‘democratic deficit’ in recent years, mainly due to low political participation.

Nana Amuzu

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