Polticians accountable

Accountability in politics: a call for scrutiny during elections

In the City of London, accountability isn’t merely desired; it’s an enforceable obligation. For evidence, consider HHI v Chase Manhattan Bank (1991), which underscored the responsibilities of financial entities in providing truthful financial advice. When a bank misleads, it’s legally liable for the fallout. The key underpinning here is that such institutions often mislead when they’re “selling” their services. Likewise, politicians, during elections, are essentially “advertising” and “selling” their ideas. And here’s the dilemma: while financial institutions are held accountable for misleading “advertisements,” why aren’t politicians held to a similar standard for potentially misleading pledges?

Elections: the marketplace of ideas

The election season is, at its core, a marketplace where ideas are pitched, promises are made, and allegiances are sought. Just as a bank might tout the advantages of a financial product, politicians broadcast their visions and promises to woo voters. The key difference? Financial institutions face legal repercussions if they mislead. Politicians? Not so much.

It’s key to understand that misleading electorates is not just about the blatant untruths; it’s about shades of presentation. A politician can be as persuasive with the truth as with exaggerations. After all, describing a situation as a glass being “half full” or “half empty” is based on the same fact, yet the framing differs.

Regulating truth in the electoral marketplace

If we accept the premise that elections are akin to marketplaces and that politicians, during these times, are “advertising” their visions, then the parallel with the financial sector becomes even more evident. The case of HHI v Chase Manhattan Bank (1991) offers clarity on this in the financial realm. The natural progression of thought is: Why shouldn’t politicians be held to comparable standards during election campaigns?

Why relying solely on electoral outcomes isn’t enough

While elections are indeed mechanisms of political accountability, they’re often reactive. A misled electorate can only respond in the subsequent election, by which time considerable [financial/economic] damage might have been inflicted. Thus, there’s a pressing need for proactive measures.

The path forward: an enhanced role for the Electoral Commission

The proposal is simple yet profound. Given that the Electoral Commission already oversees the mechanics of elections, its purview could be expanded to scrutinise the “advertisements” of politicians during campaigns, akin to the way the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority regulates commercial advertisements.

Imagine a political landscape where election promises undergo rigorous checks by the Electoral Commission. Politicians would be incentivised to base their campaigns on nuanced truths, presenting both sides of the proverbial “glass”. And, in scenarios where they deviate from the truth, there would be legal consequences in place.

When financial institutions are bound by legal frameworks to uphold truth in their “advertisements,” it’s only logical for politicians to be held to similar standards during elections. After all, a promise, whether in a bank or on a campaign trail, is of immense value. It’s only fitting then that these promises are based on truths, however they might be framed.

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