Direct democracy

On this page you will find discussion and analysis of direct democracy. The content here is specifically designed for A level politics and early undergraduate level students looking to deepen their understanding of the topic. At A level specifically, the component 1 topic on ‘democracy and participation’ is where this topic will most apply. You have to know about different forms of direct democracy beyond referendums. 

Click on any of the questions below to be taken to the answer.

What is direct democracy and how is it different from representative democracy?

Why is direct democracy more widely utilised today? 

What are the criticisms of greater use of direct democracy?

What are referendums?

How many referendums have there been in the UK? 

Why are referendums criticised? 

What are initiatives?

Should initiatives be introduced in the UK? 

What is recall of MPs and how does recall apply in the UK? 

What are citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries?

What is a town meeting? 

What is an e-petition? 

Is there wisdom in crowds? 

Have we now introduced popular democracy into our constitution? 

Further reading

What is direct democracy and how is it different from representative democracy?

What is direct democracy?

At its most basic level, direct democracy means involving the public directly in making decisions. By contrast, representative democracy involves the public choosing representatives, who take these decisions on their behalf. In practice, most modern liberal democracies are neither wholly direct democracies or representative democracies, but a mixture of the two.

Democratic practices and ideas have been around in various forms for a long time. For as far back as historical research can go, in diverse parts of the globe, societies have by various means sought to govern themselves with some degree of agreement or consent from their populations. This tendency is sometimes known as ‘early democracy’. Ancient ideas of democracy have been typically associated with the Greeks, who in some cities practised a more direct form of democracy than we have today. In Ancient Athens, for example, large portions of the (relatively small) population were involved in deliberation and collective decision-making. However, liberal thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were sceptical of this kind of direct rule, believing it to be unstable and prone to oppressing minorities. They favoured representative democracy, arguing that elected representatives, with particular skills, were better placed to determine what was in the common interest. 

This video explains how Greek direct democracy worked.

Thinkers such as James Madison (1751-1836), one of the ‘Framers’ of the US Constitution, believed that transferring power to a smaller group of individuals with proven wisdom would make it less likely that self-interest would be pursued in politics. The political thinker Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is one of the most well-known defenders of representative democracy. His view, that elected representatives should not be bound to obey the particular wishes of their electors but should form their own judgements (though be open to hearing and taking into account the views of those on whose behalf they govern), remains influential to this day.

Why is direct democracy more widely utilised today? 

The last few decades have seen a trend towards greater use of direct democracy in the UK. Four major referendums took place in the 1970s. Then, after a gap of nearly two decades, the new Labour government, which came to power in 1997, revived the practice. The Labour government held five referendums (between 1997 and 2004) and explored other ways of getting citizens directly involved in decision-making, such as citizens’ juries. 

Referendums were used to seek approval for new devolved institutions in London, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, increased direct democracy was also a response to perceived public disillusionment with politics, of which tendencies including declining turnout at elections were believed to be indicators. It was hoped that giving people a more direct say in the decisions that affected them would boost participation and trust in politics. 

Direct democracy was not limited to the Labour government. Several major referendums took place during the term of the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron. 

No major referendums have taken place since the vote on European Union membership of June 2016. However, they could take place again; and the notion that the public should be given opportunities to participate directly in decisions beyond simply voting at elections, especially when it comes to major constitutional issues, remains widespread. 

What are the criticisms of greater use of direct democracy? 

Some criticise direct democracy for expecting voters to make decisions on issues about which they may not be as well-informed on an issue as politicians and policymakers. They argue that, on this basis, direct democracy leads to worse outcomes than if decisions are left to professionals. Many also suggest that direct democracy can undermine and conflict with representative democracy, especially in a parliamentary system such as the UK’s. They also argue that it is unreasonable to expect people to devote significant amounts of time to matters of government when they already have busy lives.

What are referendums?

A referendum is where the public is given a direct vote on a particular proposal or issue. They can take place across the whole of a country, or be localised to a particular territory, region or locality. Referendums can be binding or advisory. If they are binding the outcome of the vote has to be implemented; if they are advisory, there is no obligation for the result to be carried out (although the pressure to do so can still be great). For a UK-wide referendum to take place, legislation has to be passed setting out the details of the vote.  

How many referendums have there been in the UK? 

There have been thirteen major referendums in the UK since 1973:

1973: the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK or leaving it and joining the Republic of Ireland

1975: on whether the UK should continue as a member of the European Communities.

1979: on Welsh and Scottish devolution

1997: on Welsh and Scottish devolution again

1998: on the Belfast or ‘Good Friday’ Agreement, part of the Northern Ireland peace process

1998: on devolution for London

2004: on establishing a Greater London Authority

2011: on an extension in Welsh devolution

2011: on the parliamentary voting system (possible shifting to the Alternative Vote)

2014: on Scottish independence

2016: on UK membership of the European Union

Why are referendums criticised? 

Referendums have been criticised on a number of fronts. Some argue they simplify complex issues into a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, and encourage division, rather than reasoned deliberation and debate. As with direct democracy in general, some say that citizens should not be given a direct say in such important and complicated issues, of which they may only have a very limited knowledge. Rather, these kinds of decisions should be left to experienced representatives that citizens have elected for this purpose. Critics say that outsourcing these decisions to the public diminishes the role of representative institutions, such as Parliament, making them seem less relevant. 

Another argument commonly advanced is that referendums are in tension with one of the defining features of the UK constitution: the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – where Parliament can achieve anything it wants by passing legislation. Referendums reflect a principle of ‘popular sovereignty’ – where ultimate power rests with the people. In the UK, Parliament can in theory ignore or overturn the result of a referendum if it wants to. However, in practice it is difficult for parliamentarians to ignore the result of a popular vote, even if they disagree with the outcome. Referendums can create confusion around which should have priority: the will of the people expressed in a popular vote; or the will of Parliament, as has traditionally been the case in the UK. 

Further reading: Nat le Roux, Is there a tension between Parliamentary Democracy and referendums?

What are initiatives? 

Initiatives (or citizens’ initiatives) are often cited as another example of direct democracy. Under this system, if a particular proposal set out in a petition secures enough signatures, it can force a public vote to be held on the issue. In some places, if a petition reaches enough signatures the issue is automatically placed on the ballot paper and the result of the referendum is legally binding (a direct initiative); in others, it is submitted to the legislature for consideration first (an indirect initiative). Initiatives of various forms are widespread at the state level in the United States. Initiatives are also used in many European countries, including Germany (at the state level) and in Switzerland (at national level).  

Peter Kellner of YouGov and Shane Greer of Total Politics discuss whether initiatives and referendums are a good idea looking at an example from Switzerland, where direct forms of democracy are more widely used.

Should initiatives be introduced in the UK? 

Some believe initiatives should be introduced in the UK. The 2019 Brexit Party manifesto, for example, contained a pledge to ‘introduce Citizens’ Initiatives to allow people to call referendums, subject to a 5m threshold of registered voter signatures’. Proponents argue that there are insufficient ways the public can make their voices heard in the UK. Initiatives would force politicians to pay attention to issues they otherwise might ignore, and give people a sense of influence and involvement in politics outside of elections. 

However, others object, arguing that direct initiatives would be incompatible with the UK political system and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, as the UK Parliament cannot be forced to pass certain legislation, even if it has been supported by a popular vote. Furthermore, they believe that initiatives might weaken the role of representative institutions. 

What is recall of MPs and how does recall apply in the UK?  

Recall is the term used to describe a process through which the public can remove their elected representative before the end of their full term. Typically, a recall is triggered when a certain number of voters sign a petition. An election in the area is then held. 

A recall procedure was first introduced in the UK in 2015 through the Recall of MPs Act 2015. In the UK, certain conditions have to be met for the recall procedure to take place. An MP has to have been convicted of an offence or suspended from the Commons for a certain amount of time. If these conditions are met, then a petition must be opened. A by-election is called if 10 per cent or more of registered voters in the constituency sign the petition. The MP removed by the recall petition is permitted to contest the seat in the by-election, alongside any other candidates who may run.  

In some other countries, voters are able to recall their elected representatives even if they haven’t committed any particular offence. The recall process in the UK has been criticised for the very limited conditions in which it can be triggered and some argue that it should be easier for the process to be initiated. Others hold that recall is an undesirable mechanism, which is likely to be abused by those simply seeking to reverse an election result they do not like.

An up-to-date list of recall elections can be found on the Parliament website.

What are citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries?

Citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries are another way of involving the public in forming policies and making decisions. Unlike referendums, they involve a small group of citizens learning about an issue and discussing it with each other before reaching a decision. Although they do not involve large sections of the population, the participants are chosen to be representative, with a similar spread of different characteristics and backgrounds to that of the country as a whole. Citizens’ juries usually involve between 12 and 24 people, whereas citizens’ assemblies can be much bigger (between 50 and 250 participants). 

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries say that they allow the public to consider an issue in depth, which they may not have the opportunity to do in the case of a referendum. Furthermore, it is argued that individuals come to more measured and well-supported conclusions when they discuss a subject with those who have differing views. However, it is pointed out that the small size of these exercises is a limitation – they can only involve a subsection of the population. Nevertheless, citizens’ assemblies have been increasingly used at UK-wide, devolved and local government level in recent years. 

This seminar was hosted by the Constitution Unit in 2019 and looked at the question: ‘Citizens’ Assemblies: What are they good for?’

Read about Climate Assembly UK, the citizens’ assembly called by six parliamentary Select Committees to discuss climate change.  

What is a town meeting? 

The term ‘town meeting’ comes from the United States, where the format has a long history, particularly in the region of New England. Town meetings promote participation in local government, giving residents the opportunity to get directly involved. In the New England town meeting model, members of the community come together to deliberate and decide on policy and budgets for the local area themselves, acting as the town legislature. In representative town meetings, members of the local area are elected to take part in the legislative process. It is said that this form of local government encourages ordinary people, who do not represent a particular political party or interest, to take part. 

Town meetings are also used in Switzerland, where they are the legislative body for most small and medium town regions in the country. The members of the community get together several times a year to discuss and vote on the town budget and any public decisions that need to be made. 

Some have said that if this model were introduced in the UK, it would invigorate local democracy. Local democracy in the UK is marked by low turnout in elections and low engagement. Providing citizens with the power to decide themselves would generate a culture of participation and responsibility, it is claimed. 

What is an e-petition? 

The UK Parliament explains how e-petitions work.

E-petitions, enabling members of the public to sign petitions registered with the No.10 Downing Street website, were first introduced at UK-level by Tony Blair, then the Labour Prime Minister, in 2006. Today, members of the public can create and sign petitions calling for Parliament and government to take action on an issue. The House of Commons Petitions Committee decides how to handle and respond to petitions, and a petition that reaches over 100,000 signatures is eligible for debate in the House of Commons. E-petitioning has also been used at other levels, for instance by the devolved legislatures.

Although petitions give the public the opportunity to raise their concerns, some hold they are a relatively weak form of direct democracy, compared to mechanisms such as the initiative. Often petitions are not discussed at all, and even in these cases they do not necessarily lead directly to action. 

This debate in Parliament was prompted by an e-petition calling for pet theft to be made a specific criminal offence.

Is there wisdom in crowds? 

Whether people think direct democracy is a good idea often depends on whether they think the public themselves are qualified to form policies and participate directly in making important decisions. This harks back to a longstanding debate about whether crowds are wise or impulsive. Some argue that when it comes to mass decision-making, people often simply follow what everyone around them is doing and decide based on their emotions rather than their reason. For these critics, crowds can be easily manipulated by charismatic, dangerous leaders. In 1945, the Labour politician, Clement Attlee, shortly before becoming Prime Minister, famously described referendums as a ‘device for dictators and demagogues’. Referendums, the argument goes, can be used by populist leaders to take away rights and liberties. They can, it is held, have a polarising effect on society, deepening rather than overcoming divisions, and promoting extremism.

However, others respond that this represents a patronising and elitist view of the public, which does not trust them to make good decisions. In a proper democracy, they argue, members of the public should be treated with respect and as able to make up their own minds on a matter. It is pointed out that the public are capable of debating and engaging with an issue, and have done so frequently in the past. In fact, some suggest that citizens possess a kind of wisdom that politicians and specialists, who are often distant from everyday concerns, lack. Citizens’ assemblies and other such initiatives are pointed to as instances where citizens grapple with complex policy questions and come to sensible, well-reasoned conclusions. Rather than doing away with direct democracy, proponents often suggest instead that the information available to the public should be improved, so that citizens can more easily reach informed conclusions. 

Have we now introduced popular democracy into our constitution? 

In recent decades, democracy in the UK has in several ways become more ‘direct’ or ‘popular’. Many would observe that compared to a country such as Switzerland there are still comparatively few opportunities for UK citizens to get directly involved in decision-making. Nevertheless, the increased use of referendums in particular represents a significant change. Many believe referendums are now an established aspect of the UK constitution. It might be held, for example, that changes to devolution or the UK’s exit from the European Union could not take place without referendums. In this sense, a precedent for seeking popular consent for these major constitutional changes has been established. However, this remains a convention rather than a legal necessity. Although it may prove politically challenging, the UK Parliament, in keeping with the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, retains the legal power to make these changes without first seeking direct approval from the public. Nonetheless, Brexit represents a case in which the outcome of a referendum led to the implementation of a result to which majorities in both Houses of Parliament were opposed, suggesting a shift towards popular control of some kind.

Further reading:

Nat le Roux, ‘The EU referendum and some paradoxes of democratic legitimacy’

Ciaran Martin, ‘The UK government and a second Scottish independence referendum: an unsustainable paradox?’

Matt Qvortrup, A Tale of Two Referendums 

Andrew Blick, Entrenchment in the UK: A written constitution by default?