I’ve written in the past about the idea that candidates would be legally bound to specific election promises. The idea would be that, along with usual aspirational manifesto, each candidate would make a declaration of the specific pledges that she/he would implement if her/his party entered or supported a government, with a penalty to be paid (50% salary?) if they failed to deliver.
When I suggest such an idea, I tend to get attacked by party political hacks who say that they media/Dail/other parties “hold” politicians to account already. Except they don’t. Fine Gael and Labour supposedly held Fianna Fail to account when in opposition, and then went on to break the promises they made. How do we punish them? By voting for Fianna Fail? Please.
If political parties are using business-style marketing methods to influence voters, why can’t we have consumer protection style laws and agencies to ensure that the product we buy, a policy through voting, does what it is supposed to do on the (party) label?
It’s completely normal for us to have consumer protection laws and agencies to police and protect our rights as consumers, so why not an agency to protect us from candidates and parties who try to pull a fast one? After all, politics is now, effectively, just another consumer activity where entities (parties/companies) try to sell us stuff (products/policies) for a return (profit/votes). Is it really that weird to suggest an agency that demands the same standards of our politicians that we expect from our service providers?
How would it work? Well, we could start with a Which? style expert analysis of each parties manifesto at election time, where the VPA could cost and analyse each manifesto independently, put a cost to taxpayers or promises, or point out where parties have not costed things properly, if at all. It could also criticise parties for giving vague promises.
Secondly, it could operate a website where, by law, candidates would be required to fill in a questionaire to allow voters to find the candidate closest to their values. Take the abortion issue: supposing voters could now check a website which gives a clear and unambigous guide as to where your local TD stands on the issue. And no, “It’s a very complicated issue” is not a policy.
At the following election, the VPA could rate the governing parties as to their manifesto promises and record of delivery.
Finally, candidates who enter government could then be prosecuted by the VPA for not delivering on their legally binding pledges.
Party political hacks hate this suggestion, and claim it’s unworkable, but that’s just not true. Don’t forget, the actual legal pledges are decided by the candidates themselves. If a candidate decides to make no legal pledges, that is her/his right. But then they will have to answer how they are making promises in their manifestos which they won’t legally stand over? It’ll force candidates to be serious about their promises.
The obvious question is: Do we need this, and can we afford it? I think it would force politicians to recognise that there is independent scrutiny, and we can fund it from a tax on party political donations. We’re not talking a huge agency here, in fact, it could be part of the proposed electoral commission.
The key question about an agency, and a legally binding pledge like this:
How will politicians feel about it? That’s an answer in itself.
That’s the decider: candidates would absolutely loath having to clearly state where they stood on specific issues and values, and that is a single good reason why we should do it.