Published on January 17, 2014

Challenging Tony Benn: Democracy is about more than accountability

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Cloud question markI was musing recently on Tony Benn’s famous five questions which should be asked of anyone in power. Well they’re famous if you’re a democracy geek anyway:

  • what power do you have?
  • where did you get it?
  • in whose interests do you exercise it?
  • to whom are you accountable? and
  • how can we get rid of you?

These are very important questions, focused on the accountability function of democracy. The last is the ultimate backstop question; it’s the ‘how do we get rid of the bastards’ question.

But, I think there are other important questions we need to ask if we are interested in strengthening democracy. I’d, somewhat presumptuously, add two more to Tony Benn’s list:

  • What are the 3-5 significant challenges faced by our community/ country/ the world that you plan to tackle?
  • How do you plan to involve the public in shaping your understanding of these challenges and the solutions you develop?

The first of these is critical to understanding the extent to which they are concerned about our welfare rather than scoring petty political points.

The second of these is critical to understanding the extent to which they hold an elitist perspective rather than valuing the public’s voice and understanding how best to involve citizens in the decisions they will take.

These questions are important for me because democracy has to be about more than accountability. If it is just this then it is a zero sum game – the person I support must win because otherwise I lose.

Our democracies must find ways to create spaces where citizens can identify and shape our understanding of the issues that face our societies, and develop solutions that work with their lives and not just for the most powerful. My questions are intended to help understand the extent to which our leaders are able to do this.

If you disagree with a politician’s answers to either of my two questions then Tony Benn’s fifth question becomes particularly pertinent.

Am I right to want to add greater depth to Tony Benn’s five questions? Have I found the right ones?

4 Responses to “Challenging Tony Benn: Democracy is about more than accountability”

  1. Simon Burall
    January 20, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Over on Twitter, ‏@TonyAgotha suggests a 6th question: “do you have the appropriate power and the means to tackle the problems we face effectively? #outputlegitimacy” https://twitter.com/TonyAgotha/status/424248581189812224

    Which made me want to add a 7th: “given that you don’t (no-one does) how do you plan to collaborate with others who can help you?”

  2. Simon Burall
    January 20, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Meanwhile, @andywilliamson thinks I’m making it too complicated and suggests, “how will you strive to understand the views of those you represent?” https://twitter.com/andy_williamson/status/425232914658635776

    While I have sympathy with the desire to simplify, for me part of the issue is that this too often leads to fragmented consultations with the public that can’t really change what is at the heart of issues. My first question is intended to explore how politicians are framing issues, and whether they are doing so in a way that gives the public a chance of actually influencing something meaningful.

  3. Simon Gill
    January 20, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    The second additional question you suggest is particularly important. A politician needs to understand some aspects of both the technical aspects (e.g. the potential effectiveness of a new medical treatment) and the effects of a policy (e.g. access to treatment for patients from particularly places and backgrounds). Then they have to try and fairly weigh up those issues. In many fields, technical experts tend to be very pro their own technologies, and the rest of us have little understanding of the mechanisms. A politicians job is really to try and balance the opinion of these different groups…and to do so they must at least to some degree have engaged with and understand those view points.

    Running the other way: by engaging both sides of the argument it can help the rest of society to understand other peoples view and develop our understanding of complex issues.

  4. David Farnsworth
    January 20, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Simon is absolutely right. We need to move on from representative democracy (where our reps feel that they can even do things “in our interests” that we do not agree with) to citizen direct involvement. In the field in which I work – development and planning – the neighbourhood planning bit of the Localism Act gives exclusive power to communities to draw up their own prescription for the development of their neighbourhoods without the interference of professional or party political ideology. Participatory budgeting is going in the same direction.

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