Politicians as Representatives Instead of Delegates

Politicians act as representatives instead of delegates in most modern democracies: they themselves take the necessary political decisions.

Whereas delegates are given detailed instructions by the people they represent, politicians are elected to act on behalf of the people – as described above (6.5.1).  They should then be free to take whatever decisions will best serve the public in practice.  They are accountable to the people, and they should remain true to the principles they have avowed when standing for election, but they must remain free to respond to changing circumstances.

Detailed policies require considerable research.  Expert advice should be sought.  Not everyone in an electorate has the necessary skills, or resources, or has the time, or makes the effort to reach fully informed decisions.  People are choosing a policy direction when they vote for a politician, but they should not try to prescribe a detailed method of implementation.  “Having a hand on the joystick” ( is not the same as being the pilot.

Britain’s government abdicated its responsibilities in 2013, by failing to act as representatives instead of delegates, when David Cameron promises in/out referendum on EU.  He said that the British people “must have their say” on membership of the European Union – even though this was a complex issue which most people did not fully understand.  What made matters worse is that he had not made a detailed study of what sort of ‘Brexit’ was possible.  The government committed itself to implementing the result of the vote but, as Burke asked in the speech quoted earlier, “what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion?”



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6513.htm