Elections are at the heart of the democratic process. For many citizens, voting in an election is their main form of political activity.
For most citizens, voting in a general election is their key act of political participation. At the ballot box, the voter expresses a political preference by voting for the candidate of a particular political party.
Facing the electorate every 5 years is one of the ways in which the government is held accountable for its performance in office. Voters can remove unpopular governments.
In a representative democracy, elections are a means by which the electorate selects representatives to act on its behalf.
In the UK parliamentary system, general elections determine the composition of the legislature (albeit one chamber of it) rather than the executive. However, as the majority party in the House of Commons forms the government, most general elections effectively decide which party will take power. Exceptions occur in the case of a hung parliament, where no single party has an overall majority (1974 minority Labour government). Then, as in proportional representation systems where elections rarely produce a decisive majority, deals between political parties determine the composition of the government.
Elections allow ordinary citizens to have their policy preferences heard and to influence the political agenda. Voters can choose the party offering a package of policies that best meet their interests or values, but have only limited scope to influence individual decisions. Election defeat can, however, force a party to rethink policies that proved unpopular at the polls (e.g. Labour's 1983 policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament – “the longest suicide note in history”). The doctrine of the mandate gives the winning party authority to press ahead with the programme that it presented successfully to the electorate, but it also suggests that radical initiatives should not be introduced without prior approval from voters.
Election campaigns provide citizens with information on major political issues, the policies of the main political parties, the government's record, etc. The more informed and better educated the electorate, the healthier the democracy is.
Free and fair elections provide legitimacy for the political system as a whole. By the act of voting, even for a losing party, citizens give their consent to the workings of the system. Voters accept completely that elections are free and. fair. The government also gains legitimacy, as by winning an election it can claim to be both representative of, and responsible to, the people.
Finally, elections are a means of recruitment to the governing elite. Political parties are the key agents of recruitment, as they nominate candidates for election, provide them with the resources to conduct a successful campaign and then expect loyalty to the party line once those candidates become MPs.