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Fixed-term Parliaments: not the answer

One of the strangest aspects of the MP’s expenses scandal has been the way politicians have tried to move public discussion on to questions of sweeping constitutional reform. It seems to me it was the greed of MPs themselves – though not all of them, of course – and the laxness of the system they created for themselves, that caused this abuse of public funds, and that it was the attempt by some of them, including the Speaker, to cover up the abuse that has made public anger even worse. Nothing about it points to the need for deep constitutional reform.

That doesn’t mean the ideas people are floating don’t have merit: some of them certainly do.

But an idea I’m definitely not in favour of is one David Cameron has now said he’ll consider: fixed-term Parliaments. The first thing to say about this is that it’s entirely at odds with Cameron’s desire for there to be a general election now. This contradiction in itself seems to me to make David Cameron’s new suggestion laughable. But I’m not for it on its merits, either.

We already have fixed-term Parliaments in the sense that Parliament has a fixed maximum term, under the Septennial Act 1715 (a silly bit of drafting, that – surely the 1715 Act ought to have been repealed and replaced, rather than simply amended). Parliament lasts a maximum of five years. What the reformers mean of course is that the Prime Minister should no longer have power to ask the Queen for a dissolution within five years, or a shortened four-year term.

But if you applied that rule strictly, as in David Howarth’s bill, then Parliament could not be dissolved (see clause 2(4)), and no new election could be held, even if a government lost its majority and was defeated in a vote of confidence. If the government resigned, a new administration would have to be formed by the opposition, or by a coalition of parties, without there being any possibility of the public having their say in a general election. Nothing could be less democratic. Britain would suffer either from lame-duck governments, staggering on but not governing, in a Parliament unable either to legislate or dissolve itself, or else from an even worse evil, changes of government without general elections. People complain enough about Gordon Brown becoming PM without holding an election soon after; what they’d say about getting David Cameron without an election, I don’t know.

So, some people say, we must have an exception in the event of a government losing a confidence vote. In those circumstances, the PM would be able to ask for a dissolution. Well, all right. But then the government would simply be able to vote itself out of office, as Gerhard Schröder’s red-green coalition did in Germany in 2005, whenever it thought an election convenient. The exception would ride a coach and horses through the rule.

So you can’t really ensure power changes hands by elections, and remove the PM’s power to cut and run. Is there anything in the idea simply of reducing Parliaments to four-year terms in place of the current five years? I don’t think so. British government is short-termist enough as it is. I wouldn’t want to exacerbate that problem by forcing a shorter time-horizon on it.

Really, what most people mean at the moment when they talk about fixed-term Parliaments is that they think after four years, this government’s had it and they want an election now. Well, if people want Labour out, they need to vote for someone else on June 4 – and hope to force a crisis at the top of government. Or else simply wait for the chance to sack ministers next year.

What makes no sense is to say that the inability to force an early election on Gordon Brown now means we should remove the possibility of an early general election ever being held in future.

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  1. stupid man – stupid idea.

    while we’re on the subject he also has some weird ideas about pr: ‘Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites.’

    mind you, he’s not all shite: seems he want to move power ‘from judges to the people’. looks like hanging will be coming back then.

    woohoo – more amateurs in charge. and committees of well-meaning community people. just as long as he has the man in the street doing his next operation. i’ll have a surgeon please.

  2. Head of Legal – you have made an impressive and persuasive case. I entirely agree that fixed term Parliaments are a bad idea. Yes, the present system gives the incumbent something of an advantage but it also keeps the Opposition on its toes since they have to be a government-in-waiting.

    Cameron’s position is illogical – but then he is a politician!!

    The expenses scandal – still being played out – has nothing to do with the structure of Parliament, the electoral system or the constitution. It is a grossly over generous arrangement designed by members to benefit members. All that is required is reform of the expenses rules and allow the public to know what is being claimed.

    There are many things about Parliament which do need reform however and the present debate cannot be unhealthy. Government (via the Whips) control the business of Parliament. Government introduce important measures using statutory instruments so as to avoid detailed debate – see Police and Crime Bill and DNA profile retention – this is devious and wrong!

    I also dislike the unelected House of Lords though they have a far better record on the protection of civil liberty matters such as trial by jury than the Commons.

    Ultimately, reform must not be allowed to come from these “knee jerk” reactions to present events or from politicians throwing up smokescreens to escape the spotlight on their expenses. We really need a Constitutional Convention which looks at the all these matters.

  3. Here is an item I wrote a little while ago:

    Constitutional Renewal Bill

    Beyond the political circle within Westminster it is a little known fact that the Constitutional Renewal Bill is currently progressing through Parliament. If enacted it will fix the date of the next general election at 7th May 2010 and fixes all subsequent general elections at 4 yearly intervals – see Clause 43. The present Parliament would be dissolved on 7th April 2010 and cannot be dissolved in any other way.

    There has been a campaign to have Fixed Term Parliaments. Perhaps the main objection to the present system is that the Prime Minister is able to decide the election date and will obviously do so when things appear to be more favourable to his political party. However, the present system also has flexibility and enables an unpopular and maybe even incompetent government to be removed without having to go the full term. Callaghan lost a vote of confidence and then had to resign (as a matter of constitutional convention). It seems that any democracy needs a “safety-valve” mechanism to rid itself of poor government. No such mechanism will exist if this Bill becomes law.