The advantages and disadvantages of Representative Democracy

It is the only form of democracy which will work in large nation states. Direct democracy is only achievable in relatively small communities, especially in the form of government by mass meeting. It is therefore a practical means of making democracy work.

• Elected representatives have the time to develop skills and knowledge in order to make informed decisions. They can therefore govern for the people using their superior understanding to act in the public interest. Therefore they represent as 'Trustees' rather than delegates.

People are too busy to take part in politics directly. Representative democracy is more efficient because ordinary citizens are relieved of the burden of day-to- day decision-making – they simply have to choose who they want to govern them. Random selection (sortition) would be an inconvenient duty for most people.

• Representative democracy maintains distance between ordinary citizens and difficult decisions. This encourages compromise and decisions which can be free of passion and emotion. This avoids the tyranny of the majority since politicians can make decisions in the interest of all citizens.

However, critics might argue that representative democracy is a façade and not real democracy. The act of voting every few years is, at best, a democratic ritual; and, at worst, it benefits the government more than the people. by keeping power in the hands of the same class. Governments therefore govern in the name of the people, but, in practice, the people may have little meaningful control over government. There is also confusion about exactly how politicians should represent. The Trustee model seems condescending- since politicians claim to 'know what's best' and this is used as an excuse for ignoring the real interests of the people. Representatives tend tp come from a narrow class background with little resemblance to the general population.

Strengths of Representative Democracy

  • Elected or appointed representatives may have superior experience and judgement to the general population. Almost nine out of 10 (89%) of MPs are graduates. 23% hold an Oxbridge degree. The EU referendum provides good evidence for both sides of this argument- Michael Gove infamously asserted that ‘people had had enough of listening to experts’

'In the run up to the 2016 EU referendum I campaigned for Stronger IN on the streets of South London. I’d never canvassed before and it was a disquieting experience. As I trudged through Lewisham handing out flyers, it became horribly apparent that most of those who I stopped to talk to didn’t understand what the hell was going on.

Some asked me to explain it. Others told me they were “voting for Boris”. One guy took my arm and informed me that “chaos is good so I’m voting for chaos”.' Independent Jan 2019

Graph below shows support for Brexit and newspaper readership

Vote leave by education

  • Representatives are more likely to make rational judgements than the population, who may be swayed by emotion. These emotions might be influenced by media campaigns or misleading propaganda- such as the £350 million to the NHS which would be the result of Brexit but was not true. Evidence of the EU referendum- fear of immigration.

  • Representatives are usually accountable, which helps to make them behave responsibly. How can ‘the people’ be held to account if Brexit turns out to be a bad idea. MPs and minister are scrutinized can be questioned or voted out of office

  • The people cannot be continuously involved in politics and so can delegate their power to representatives. The day to day work of Parliament is quite dull and time consuming.

  • Representatives can mediate between the interests of different sections of society. This avoids the 'tyranny of the majority' Scotland voted in a majority to remain in the EU but will be forced to leave.

Weaknesses of Representative Democracy

  • Representatives may not accurately represent the opinions and demands of the wider population. In 2003 the Labour government supported the USA in a war against Iraq which was widely unpopular. In 2010 the Coalition began NHS reformed which were opposed by most medical professionals.

  • Most MPs did not support Brexit.

  • 2015 -A quarter of all MPs have a occupational background in politics. The overwhelming majority of MPs are university educated and nearly a quarter (23%) went to Oxford or Cambridge (similar to 2005 and 2010). Around 45% of Conservative MPs were from Oxbridge ; 14% for Labour; and 13% for the Lib Dems. This makes them out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. The cuts which followed the economic crisis of 2008 had the hardest impact on the poor.

  • Party representation, in particular, can prevent elected representatives from acting independently. The mandate model of representation- suggests MPs are elected to support the party manifesto and leadership rather than their constituents. The vast majority of votes in the House of Commons are along party lines.

  • Representative democracy can turn into 'rule by elites' rather than disperse power which occurs in direct democracy. Remain was supported by the leaders of all the big parties in Parliament, the majority og company directors and academics-were they out of touch with ordinary people's concerns about immigration and loss of jobs?

  • Representative democracy is only 'fair' if elections are also 'fair' FPTP has many flaws and can result in very disproportional results and even time when the government has few votes than the opposition.

In the 2010 election PM Gordon Brown is recorded calling a women 'bigoted'. Or was she just an ordinary voter who he could not understand?