In this page:
- This page considers the basic building blocks of democracy: representation and accountability.
- It also introduces the related idea of local autonomy.
Our democratic system is primarily based on representation. In a representative democracy, voters do not make policy decisions themselves: they give that power to elected representatives.
In this page, we introduce features of representative democracy, in particular representation and accountability. We also discuss the related idea of autonomy.
What is democracy, and what is representative democracy?
The concept of democracy has its origins in ancient Greece. Translated from Greek, the word literally means ‘government by the people’.
In cities like ancient Athens, ordinary people gathered together regularly to make the decisions about what should happen. We refer to this now as direct democracy.
Decisions in the UK and other modern democracies are not made by the people directly, apart from occasional referendums and assemblies like the one you are involved in. Critics argue that direct democracy is too time consuming and most people don’t want to be that involved in politics (more on direct democracy).
Rather, decision-making is generally left to elected representatives whom we expect to act on our behalf. Most of our representatives belong to political parties. This can cause tensions: should representatives follow party policy or the interests of their local area? They are not always the same.
Parties are particularly dominant in national politics: of the 650 current Members of Parliament (MPs), only two were not elected as party representatives. In local politics, there is often a greater role for independents, but in most places, local councillors still represent established political parties.
Party composition of councils in the Assembly North and Assembly South areas
The charts above show the political make-up of the councils in the Assembly North and Assembly South areas. The councils vary widely in their party composition. Only the Isle of Wight council has the majority of elected representatives not from the main political parties in the UK.
What is representation?
Representative democracy has two key elements: representation and accountability.
Local councillors represent their ward and all the people who live in that area. But some people do not always feel that their elected representative really represents them. Our electoral system means that councillors will often be elected without winning a majority of the vote and the very low turnout in local elections (often less than 30 per cent) means that most citizens have not voted for any candidate. There are also concerns that councillors often have a very different life experience and background from many of the people they represent. It is rare for councillors to reflect the proportions of women, ethnic minority groups, age groups and social classes in the broader population.
What is accountability?
Representative democracy provides opportunities for citizens to hold their representatives to account:
- At election times, citizens are able to use their vote to support or punish their local councillors for their own actions or the actions of the council as a whole.
- Between elections, councillors are often required to explain their decisions publicly. This is particularly true for council leaders and mayors. The local media often plays an important role in holding representatives to account.
Representation and accountability in local politics
Those who believe in local democracy are often concerned that many of the decisions made in local areas are by bodies that are not elected. They worry that many of the policies of recent governments have not been concerned with promoting local democracy, and have been driven only by the desire to promote economic development.
Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), for example, made up of representatives of local councils and businesses, cannot easily be held accountable by local people.
There are similar democratic concerns about combined authorities without any elected mayor or assembly (as in city deals). While people get to vote for their local councillors, they do not have a direct vote for who runs the combined authority. Voters cannot hold the authority to account directly. Others argue that we should be more worried about efficient service delivery rather than democratic accountability.
The choice between a single directly elected mayor and a full assembly raises interesting democratic questions.
- A single person, such as a mayor, cannot represent the diversity of different political views, ages, ethnicities and genders in a community.
- But a mayor will be much more visible than most local councillors and there are much clearer lines of accountability to the people.
- In areas where one party always dominates, it may be very difficult for voters to remove a mayor from the dominant party, even if he or she is doing a poor job.
What about local autonomy?
Democracy implies that people are able to govern themselves. Where there is a strong sense of community and shared identity, there is often an argument for more autonomy. This is a hotly contested issue in Scotland today where many people now favour creating an independent country. They identify more strongly with Scotland and feel less connection to the UK as a whole.
In England, some people identify strongly with traditional counties, such as Yorkshire or Cornwall. Other people identify more strongly with their local communities in towns and villages. It might be that democracy will work better if such counties and communities can make more of their own decisions.
Local autonomy can clash with the desire for common standards of services across the country. There is often concern about ‘postcode lotteries’ where services vary from place to place. Should local areas be able to make their own decisions about the quality of services or should there be national standards so everyone is treated the same?
Local autonomy may also not be the most efficient way of delivering services. Different issues may be best resolved at different levels of government.