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What Are the Most Significant Differences Between a Majoritarian Democracy and a Consensual one?

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What are the most significant differences between a majoritarian democracy and a consensual one?


This essay will address the political outcomes generated by both majoritarian and consensual-democracy. I will apply the comparative method, attempting to critically evaluate the effects of democratic structure on different states, with consideration of institutional distinctiveness. This analysis will attempt to falsify my hypothesis: consensual-democracy differs from majoritarian-democracy in that the former generates microcosmic political representation. I will consider ‘microcosm’ as a multifaceted concept, dealing with the relative importance of its different forms – the umbrella definition imitating that of Evans (2009: 97-8): microcosm meaning for a government/parliament to be an encapsulation of greater society under the principle of representation. I will initially justify and apply a United Kingdom (UK) case-study, considering the degree of microcosmic policy-making within the multi-nation state, before comparing international political experience, affording credence to minority-representation, gender equality, and election-rigging, with my conclusive remarks conjoining such analysis with the essay title. Discussions within this essay will be built on a working-definition of Duverger’s law: majoritarian electoral systems result in majority-holding governments with a two-party system, while Proportional Representation (PR) systems generate a multi-party and consensus-based democracy (Duverger, 1964: 217), recognising the link between electoral and democratic systems.

United Kingdom Case-Study: The Problematic Nature of ‘Microcosm’

In comparative literature, case-studies are often seen as an invaluable addition to analysis, not least because they provide an in-depth application of the hypothesis (Collier, 2002: 115). The UK, in particular, is an interesting case, for UK-wide elections are conducted through the majoritarian first-past-the-post (FPTP) while, conflictingly, devolved administrations’ elections are conducted through PR-systems (Parliament, n.d.). It is often claimed that consensual-democracy, by necessity, generates microcosmic policy-making through multi-party collaboration, while majoritarian systems achieve the opposite effect (Kim, 2008). By looking at examples within the UK, we can see that this is not strictly true. Firstly, it is possible to see how Parties, as ideological tribes, create microcosmic representation under FPTP; as Fowler and Jones (2006) discuss, the slight demise of Plaid Cymru alongside the surge in Green Party support in Wales in 1980-90 prompted the two Parties to field a single, joint candidate in the UK 1992 General Election which resulted in the first and only Plaid-Green MP. The political outcome of this can easily be seen as a direct result of FPTP; due to the Parties’ vote share being profoundly split by each other in a particular constituency, they each had no realistic chance of winning the seat, but FPTP generated an opportunity in which Plaid Cymru were moved towards green philosophy, and the Greens to nationalism. The result was an ideological fusion which reflected the greater electorate in a quasi-microcosmic fashion. In a more contemporary example, the UK 2015 General Election saw UKIP’s national vote-share surge to 12.6%, which under FPTP delivered an incredibly disproportionate one-seat win for the Party (Goodwin, 2015). Despite the majoritarian-system thwarting gains, UKIP’s prominence within the electorate created a sharp materialisation of Euroscepticism which acted as a primary impetus behind the Conservatives’ policy of a referendum on leaving the EU (Clarke, Goodwin and Whiteley, 2017). In this instance, it is seen that UKIP have set the domestic political agenda despite scant representation in Parliament, pulling the Conservatives towards their brand of right-wing populism, seeing UKIP’s vote share realised in effects beyond seat distribution. A more overt way in which FPTP has seemingly fielded microcosmic politics has been through tactical-based alliances; Watt (2006: 77) cites the UK 2001 General Election, in which “vote swapping” between individual voters in different constituencies seemingly led to successful Labour and Liberal Democrat victories at the expense of the Conservatives. Similar intentions have manifested within the most recent 2017 General Election; campaign group “Best for Britain” was set up to encourage voters to tactically vote for a candidate opposed to Britain’s departure from the EU (Elgot, 2018). These electoral tactics have meant microcosmic local-politics has been thwarted as to achieve greater microcosmic national-politics. By this, I mean that tactical arrangements have clearly compromised the microcosmic legitimacy of local-representation as constituency results have been subject to enough tact as to potentially override the national result – this may serve to create a slightly more nationally-microcosmic parliament, despite its majoritarianism, which, paradoxically, comes at the expense of local electoral microcosm.

This exposed problematic relationship between consensual-democracy and microcosmic politics can be further built on through reference to electoral externalities; as Evans (2009: 98) discusses, “Malapportionment”, “Gerrymandering”, “Electoral thresholds” and “Party laws” are some means of which seemingly proportional politics can be infiltrated by disproportionate power balances. Evans’ assertion that assuming proportionality from consensual-democracy is “simplistic” is unsound and unreasoned, however (Ibid.); nevertheless, looking within the UK alone demonstrates how consensual-democracy is not as significant as assumed in generating such an outcome. One such example exists in the contemporary politics of Northern Ireland, where a 2015 vote saw a majority of assembly representatives (under a consensual-democracy) vote in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, but was subsequently blocked by the DUP using a petition of concern – a mechanism within the nation’s power-sharing agreement which acts as a minority-veto (Evans and Tonge, 2016: 3; McCulloch, 2017) – this therefore created a situation where Northern Ireland’s consensual-democracy failed to generate microcosmic policy-making on this issue. Despite this intricacy, defenders of consensual-democracy frequently adhere to the one-dimensional view that such systems generate complete parliamentary proportionality (EPW, 2012), ignoring how copious institutionalised mechanisms have been used within the UK with the effect of further limiting microcosmic politics; gerrymandering, the practice of consciously manipulating electoral boundaries to advantage a particular Party’s election prospects, has also been a significant distortion of seat distribution throughout the history of UK General Elections (Johnston, 2015: 10-11). Not only has this influenced individual election results, but it is argued that gerrymandering has led to wider political movements such as the Labour Party’s previous hegemony within Scottish politics (Ibid., 6). What should be observed here is that were UK-wide elections conducted within a consensual-democracy, representation would not be wholly proportional due to institutionalised quirks of governance being manipulated by the government of the day. Bringing these examples firmly into the parameters of this essay, it would be an unwitting argument to say that consensual-democracy’s most significant outcome is that it achieves microcosmic policy-making; such an argument fails to recognise the institutionalised edifice that must be considered within any state to ascertain whether consensual-democracy is indeed microcosmic in practice.



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