What is democracy and why is it important?

As we prepare for the SU Elections voting period (22-24 March), SU President Kate Roberts gives you the democracy lowdown and emphasises why it's so important to have your say on who leads your Students' Union in 2021/22.

At the Students’ Union, democracy is really important to us.

As a membership organisation, we believe all students should have opportunities to feed into the work we do and tell us what they think we should be focusing on throughout the year. We have various different channels and methods for democracy but the key aspect is our Officer elections. Before we enter the voting period, we want to remind you what democracy is and why it is important to have your say on who should lead your Union next year.

Meet your SU Elections candidates

What is democracy?

The word democracy comes from the Greek words "demos", meaning people, and "kratos" meaning power, therefore democracy can be fundamentally thought of as "power of the people". It is a way of governing that depends on the will of the people. In practice, this usually translates into a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

It is essentially the opposite of autocracy, where one individual is in charge. Democracy means that the people who live in the country are involved in making decisions about the running of the country. This is the same at the Students’ Union, everyone who is a student at Royal Holloway, no matter what course or level of study, is able to have their say in who leads the Students’ Union by way of our Officer elections.

There are two main types of democracy, and we utilise both at the Students’ Union:

Direct democracy

Everyone gets the chance to vote on the outcome of a decision. An example is the UK was the Brexit referendum in 2016, and an example at the Students’ Union was the vote on our No Platform for Hate Speech referendum in October 2019.

Representative democracy

People vote to elect officials to make decisions to reflect the wishes of the people, such as the US Congress or UK Parliament. At the Students’ Union, this refers to the four sabbatical officer roles.

Why is it important?

The idea of democracy comes from two key principles:

  1. Individual autonomy: The idea that no-one should be subject to rules which have been imposed by others. People should be able to control their own lives (within reason). This would prevent abuse of power, if an elected official misuses their power, they are unlikely to be re-elected.
  2. Equality: The idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society.

It seems only fair that all those impacted by the outcome of a decision should have the chance to feed into the decision that is made through direct or representative democracy.

However, democracy isn’t a perfect political system. Winston Churchill once famously said, "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Although not perfect, democracy aims to bring the most benefits to the most number of people.

Some of the key problems with democracy are:

  • Not everyone exercises their right to vote. Last year we had a 30% turnout amongst students at Royal Holloway in our elections, and this year we would like to see this record broken. The more students who vote, the more students who are represented in the outcome.
  • Not everyone has the right to vote. In some democratic countries, there are laws that stop some people from voting. For example, the 1983 Representation of the People Act in the UK prevents people who have been convicted of crimes from voting while they are in prison. Thankfully, if you are a registered student at Royal Holloway, you will be able to vote in the Officer elections. If you have any problems voting, contact our Student Voice team at voice@su.rhul.ac.uk.
  • Decisions can take a long time. The process of changing laws and making decisions about the country has to go through various stages of voting before they come into effect. Thankfully, we can get things moving a lot faster at the Students’ Union than the government, but Officers are only elected for a year and sometimes other priorities come up (such as a pandemic) which mean the Officers need to react to the needs of the students. Think when you are voting about whose manifesto best represents you and also who you would like to represent you on issues that arise throughout the year.
  • Not everyone who votes is well-informed. Make sure you read all of the candidate manifestos on the Elections Hub and attend the Candidate Question Time events so that you feel informed when you are making your decision.

It is extremely important that you engage with the democracy of the Students’ Union and have your say in who leads your Union next year, as it will directly impact you, and all students here at Royal Holloway.

What does democracy mean to you?

We asked some of our students what democracy means to them. Here’s what they had to say:

‘"Democracy to me means freedom, equality and justice. To live a fulfilling life where all people live equally in a just society." – Izzi Vaughan, Labour Society

"Democracy is more than casting a vote; it is an active process of civic engagement. It does not entail rule by a majority, but instead the rights and freedoms that are afforded to all people to govern their own lives, as they see fit. Voting is one important way in which we exert these rights, but it cannot be abstracted from the individual's wider contributions to the social, political and civic fabric of their society." - Committee, Liberal Democrats Society

"To me, democracy is the right to speak truth unto power. The small but influential piece of power that you hold in the nib of your pen at the ballot box is your right to choose 'who governs?', or, to peacefully but forcefully say 'go away' to the lot of them." - Joshua Castle, PIR Society

"Democracy to me is people power, it means giving people a voice and uplifting each other’s views to work towards a collective good and a brighter future." - Zoha Naser, PIR Society

"Democracy means your voice and my voice are equally heard, equally valued, and equally represented." - Ben Askew, PIR Society

"To me, democracy ensures that everyone has an equal voice no matter the colour of their skin, where they are from or their political opinion. Giving all a sense of security." - Eden Singh, PIR Society

"To echo the words of previous US President, Barack Obama ‘you’ve got to get in the arena with her, because democracy isn’t a spectator sport’ and so, democracy to us at LIMUN means the active engagement, participation and collaboration of individuals toward a common goal - upholding our values of freedom." - Courtney Bridges, PIR Society

"Democracy isn't simply about electoral politics; it's about having a voice and holding the powers that be to account. It is more than a cross on a piece of paper, it's the value that everyone should have a say in the way the world works, and should be invested in it changing for the better." - Joshua Butler, PIR Society