220.127.116.11 Disciplinary Action Against Unsatisfactory Politicians
Government should serve the people, so it should be possible to take disciplinary action against unsatisfactory politicians
It seems reasonable to expect politicians to try to increase the acceptability of political governance, on the basis that they would gain more job satisfaction and would be more likely to retain their power. Unfortunately, though, there are many instances where they are found wanting. It is necessary, therefore, to have some way of penalising poor performance or failures to put the interests of the people first. Sanctions are needed: either to dismiss incompetent politicians or, in the event of actual dishonesty or corruption, to have recourse to the law.
It is essential to have a robust complaints procedure, so that disciplinary action can be initiated. People can contact politicians, to complain about actions of the government, but they also need be able to complain about their own representatives; in Britain there is the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which has a formal complaints procedure for this purpose. Writing letters to the press, or publishing on social media, can also be very effective in some circumstances – but many such complaints are unheard.
There are political processes for the dismissal of unsatisfactory politicians:
● Politicians might lose the next election in a democratic system, or be ‘recalled’ by their constituents – as in the British system of Recall elections.
● A British party leader who loses the support of colleagues can be removed, as when Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister “bowing to calls from ministerial colleagues and lawmakers in his Conservative Party”.
● Politicians can discipline each other, as in the American system of impeaching the President, although these are subject to party-political considerations. The Privileges Committee in the British parliament performs a similar function, as in the disciplining of Boris Johnson for misleading parliament over parties held in Number 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was under strict lockdown regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
● In some authoritarian systems, a ruling council or a “selectorate” can replace the leader (18.104.22.168).
It is possible, but difficult, to use the law to take disciplinary action against unsatisfactory politicians:
● “The House of Representatives accused Mr Trump of encouraging violence with his false claims of election fraud”, when he was impeached for ‘inciting’ US Capitol riot in February 2021. He was subsequently acquitted in the Senate, though, “highlighting unresolved questions about how to address allegations of misconduct by a president about to leave office” according to a Reuters report.
● It was reported in June 2023 that “Donald Trump is facing numerous legal problems” in a series of indictments.
● There are legal remedies for libel (defamation) in both the UK and the US (weaker in the latter). This is problematic, because of the cost of bringing an action, as described earlier (5.2.4).
● Lies are equally problematic in criminal law, as free speech (5.4.5) might be put forward as a defence. A rigorous definition of ‘lies’ would be required: to include demonstrable untruths, but to exclude differences of opinion.
● It is possible to imagine providing some form of remedy against lies told by politicians. For example, an advertising standards body, or an Electoral Commission, should be able to force an immediate retraction and apology for lies (agreeing its text). This would be a considerable expansion of scope for the UK Advertising Standards Authority, though, and it doesn’t address the difficult question of a remedy for an election which has been dishonestly won.
Electoral reform might increase political accountability in Britain and America. A system of proportional representation, rather than ‘first past the post’, enables small parties to emerge more easily to challenge the existing political elites and they can wield some power in coalitions (22.214.171.124). What was described by The Guardian as how Germany’s Green surge puts Angela Merkel’s coalition under fire has illustrated how the public has punished existing parties because they were seen as not paying enough attention to environmental issues.
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/edition04/6852a.htm.