6.8.5.2 Accountability

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6852.htm)

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, there are very 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.

There are legal remedies for libel (defamation) in both the UK and the US (weaker in the latter).  This is a notoriously difficult area of law, though, as described earlier (5.2.4).  Lies are equally problematic in law, as they might be seen as exercising free speech (5.4.5), so 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.

In practice, governments often see the dismissal of unsatisfactory politicians as necessary for their own survival.  They might be de-selected in a democratic system (6.3.2) and, in some authoritarian systems (6.3.1.5), it is possible for a ruling council or a “selectorate” to replace them.

Electoral reform might increase political accountability.  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 (6.3.2.4).  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 for a perceived inadequate consideration of environmental issues.

People’s ability to influence politicians (6.8.3) is vital.  The latter are much more likely to be held to account when governments and political parties become aware of public disquiet.  Problems can be resolved if governance is negotiable (6.8.4).

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