A typical polling station in the UK. Images source – independent.co.uk

The democratic system in the United Kingdom is called a representative democracy. This is the political idea that people elect or appoint representatives to make decisions on their behalf rather than making those decisions themselves. Elections are therefore used to elect representatives on behalf of citizens to different authorities and offices. The UK has a number of different authorities that people are elected to and use a variety of different electoral systems (a system used in elections that converts votes into seats, or to elect a single leader)


Purposes of Elections


Electoral mandate – The main purpose of elections is to give the winning party a mandate to govern. A mandate refers to the authority to govern granted to the winning party at an election by the voters. It suggests that the government may implement the measures in its elections manifesto. This represents the policies of which the electorate has approved. The unelected House of Lords is often seen as the guardian of the mandate. It will often obstruct proposals for which they feel the government has no mandate.  The mandate also implies that the government has authority to use its judgement in dealing with unforseen circumstances, such as military cases, economic problems, or other crisis (this is called the ‘doctors mandate’). Of course this does not mean government can then do what it wants, Parliament is there to ensure that the government does not abuse its power. If no party wins a majority though, the doctrine of the electoral mandate is severely damaged. The agreed policies of a coalition have in a sense no mandate because the electorate have not voted on them.


Electing a representative – In elections we are electing someone to represent the constituency as a whole and us as individuals, in different elected institutions.


Delivering a verdict – When voting, you are delivering a verdict on the performance of the current representatives in power. If people are broadly satisfied they will usually vote for the same party or candidate again, if not, people will vote for another party’s candidate.


Choosing country’s direction – Since we are voting for who will govern us over the next few years, we are also deciding between several alternative political programmes. We know what these programmes are going to be by reading the party manifesto’s.  Therefore we are choosing between different political directions for the country.


Choosing the country’s leaders – Even people who have little idea of competing party policies, almost certainly know the party leaders, that is in the case of a general election, the prospective prime minister and their front bench who would become ministers. So we are effectively choosing between different teams of political leaders.


Education – Elections also have an education function. During election periods candidates and parties have constant media attention, which means important political issues and philosophies of the day are brought to a lot of peoples attention. This can make more people aware of important subjects and even more interested than most people would be outside an election campaign.


Public scrutiny – During terms in office the general public have very little they can do to hold government and other institutions to account, and often rely on other organsiations to do this for them (such as Parliament in terms of holding government to account). During election periods however it makes it a lot easier for the general public to question the work of elected officials and hold them to account for their actions.