Fixed-Term Parliaments: Sound Principles, Sorry Implementation

by Marc Geddes

The spectacle surrounding fixed-term parliaments has received, despite the media headlines (see this story, for example), relatively little scrutiny. Partly this is due to the nature of the Coalition’s handling of the Bill – particularly the way in which the Coalition has rushed through the concept of fixed-term parliaments – without pre-legislative scrutiny, parliamentary debate or public considerations. Admittedly, the idea in principle seems an excellent one, which would see the removal of a prerogative power from the Prime Minister and enhancing the credibility of Parliament. And yet, the turmoil that has come with the Parliamentary Bill is enough to turn anyone off.

Parliamentary Dissolution & Confidence

The first issue that has flared up immediately after the idea of fixed-term parliaments has been raised is the problem of early elections and the method of dissolving parliament. Originally, the Coalition attempted a terrible fifty-five per cent threshold – which makes no sense rationally, logically, politically or theoretically. The seemingly random number was chosen to lock the Coalition into government and prevent it from falling apart.

Parliamentary dissolution on the grounds that the House of Commons decided to go to the country for a mandate seems unproblematic. The Coalition, however, is determined to make it as controversial as possible. The issue of course is fifty per cent – and rightly, it could cause an innumerable amount of unnecessary elections. So, I would agree with a two-thirds threshold, on the basis that it has broad consensus in the House of Commons. Perhaps it would even make sense to only allow a vote on dissolution proposal only with the explicit support from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Dissolution on other grounds – particularly fifty-five percent – doesn’t make analytical sense.

Associated with this comes the problem of a vote of no confidence. A House without the confidence of a government makes an early election almost self-evident. What if no government can be found and a dissolution is also rejected? This would appear inconceivable. And hence this is why I support a vote of no confidence in a constructive sense – an alternative must already be available. No vote can be called unless there is a ready government-in-waiting, so to speak. This would make a transition of government smooth and maintain the stability of the British political system.

Length of Parliament

The length of the proposed new fixed-term parliament is surprising. Further, I would even go so far as to say that it is a paradox to what the government stands for. The Coalition has, time and time again, exclaimed that it will foster a democratic resurgence marked with new lines of democratic accountability and reduce bureaucracy where it possibly can. The credibility of this principle is washed away by the proposed bill, which would decrease the number of times we can exercise the most basic democratic right of all – the vote.

The government claims that five years is necessary to ensure governmental stability and to pass through the legislative programme. It aptly ignores the majority of calls who think this is wrong. It also ignores practices elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Note Australia and New Zealand, who both have a legislative period of three years. Five years is a ridiculous argument. Nick Clegg has claimed that he is simply following past practice, referring to the previous government that lasted five years. But it did not last five years out of choice. It lasted five years because Gordon Brown did not have the nerve to call an election and New Labour faced a downward spiral in the polls. (For more details, see this report)

I propose a four-year term. It is the best case for the government – it is regular enough, whilst also maintaining the length to pass a legislative programme. There are, of course, calls for a three-year parliament. I would say that this is too short. Perhaps it would ensure more democratic accountability, but at the cost for making a long-term difference to parliament. Three years would undoubtedly make politicians even more conscious of public expectations, and adhere more to public opinion. It would make politicians drive more towards maintaining their position that effectively govern.

The State Opening of Parliament

Traditionally in the autumn, this event has been proposed to be moved into spring, in line with future elections – May. Again, a good idea in principle; again, mishandled by government. The Coalition has decided to give itself an extra year before holding the new State Opening. Why not just make the Queen’s Speech this coming spring? Preposterous, people would say – it would make the programme of legislation too small. Good, I’d say – show how much mettle and how determined our Coalition really is.

Another alternative is to hold the general election in autumn, thus removing the need to move the Queen’s Speech. This could also be a good idea in principle. It would avoid the hassle of local elections and timing of devolved administration electoral cycles. It is something that the government has not even considered – is it too much for the Coalition to handle?

I would not try to make headlines out of this proposal in the way that the Labour Party has recently done (as here, for example). It is not power-grabbing. It would make the workings of government more timely and effective. There is no need to be opposed to every policy for opposition’s sake. Having said that, the Coalition hasn’t done itself any favours in fostering cross-party support for constitutional reform. It has so long attempted to push through its bill without much pre-legislative scrutiny, few parliamentary debates, or even fostering public support. Why? Why is there a rush to pass this bill? Is it for fear that the government will fall? If this is the case, then it would show how truly uneasy the Coalition is with itself.

This Bill, in my opinion, characterises the unease of the Coalition in general terms. Rather than calmly work through a best solution for the nation, the focus is on passing bills and looking as if the government is changing the country and making it all shiny and new and generally just doing things. Yet change for change’s sake is also no good policy. The Coalition simply does not trust its own plans for a fixed-term parliament – why else is there a rush, a blind eye and a lack of scrutiny?

The idea of a fixed-term parliament is fundamentally a good one. The Coalition’s handing of the issue is a sorry state of affairs.