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Cameron’s new constitutional whim

I agree with the point David Cameron makes about hung Parliaments and coalition politics: the problem with them, and the proportional representation that would all but require them, is that they result in politicians, not the voters, deciding who governs. It becomes very, very difficulty to sack a government you hate – a power the British people don’t realise they have, and perhaps won’t, till it’s gone. I’m not sure what the solution is in the context of three-party politics. I do know PR for the House of Commons would be a mistake.

But Cameron is now also proposing that Parliament should have to be dissolved within 6 months of a change of Prime Minister.

I have some difficulty with this on its merits. What would happen if there were a hung Parliament? In the days after May 6 we may have a succession of Prime Ministers. Gordon Brown may be able to hang on for a week or two, or for months supported by a minority Labour party, or by the LibDems. If it only becomes clear after a few weeks that minority or Lib-Lab government could not be sustained, and David Cameron has to be sent for – should he have to call another election within 6 months? If Nick Clegg does a deal, say on May 12th, to serve under a new Labour leader, with Gordon Brown resigning – should there have to be an instant election then? Even worse, consider the constitutional position had the Brighton bomb succeeded, and the Prime Minister killed. Under Cameron’s new plan, we’d have had to have an election in Spring 1985, less than two years since the previous one. That would have been pointless and unfair to Labour – Neil Kinnock had by then had only one full year to begin transforming his party and would have been much less ready than he was two years after that. An instant election would have handed a new Tory leader power until 1990; and if you think about it, Kinnock might never have been able to reform Labour.

But the real point I want to make is that the new proposal is the direct opposite of the other bad idea he previously toyed with, of fixed-term Parliaments. The idea of fixed-term Parliaments is to remove the incumbent government’s advantage – or even an incoming government’s advantage – by making sure elections are spaced at 4 or 5 year intervals, with no option to go to the people early. Under this new plan, a governing party could engineer an election when it wanted, by timing a change of leader. It might have suited Gordon Brown very well, in fact, had he been forced to go to the country in Autumn 2007, instead of being able to flunk it, as he did. It certainly would have helped John Major win a “khaki” election in Spring 1991, soon after the defeat of Iraq in Kuwait. It would have given them each a perfect excuse to “cut and run” to take advantage of a poll bounce. Cameron’s proposal assumes that early elections are a constraint on new Prime Ministers – but in fact, they might often haved liked them, had they been able to get away with them.

Politicians’ constitutional whimmery has to stop. Is it even worth mentioning that this wasn’t in the Tory manifesto?

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  1. See also – as Hopi Sen has pointed out – Callaghan in 1976. A quick election, a majority for Callaghan, a defeat for Thatcher who would then be unlikely to continue as Tory leader…

  2. Surely the problem of a deliberate vote of no confidence could be partially solved at least by banning the vote from being proposed by a member of the ruling party? Though I suppose you could just get a sympathetic independent/minor party to do it on your behalf…

  3. I didn’t actually mention that, Jamie! Votes of confidence are more relevant to fixed-term Parliaments, aren’t they? Cameron’s new whim would require an election even if the new PM had the confidence of 100% of MPs.

    Yes, if you want fixed-term Parliaments, you need special rules about votes of confidence, or else you just allow the government to get round the fixed term (as happened in Germany under Gerhard Schröder as I recall) by voting itself down. In my view that just shows how you end up having to have rule upon rule, to counter the unintended effects of your first rule … You’re right, too, that the government could get round even that second rule. Define “opposition”, for instance. Were SDLP MPs in the last Parliament “opposition” members? Would Ulster Unionists be “opposition” members if there were a Tory government?

    Plus, do you really want to abolish the government’s ability to call a vote of confidence in itself? If it lost the confidence of its own backbenchers, in effect (assuming the rules stopping it calling a vote of confidence held) the opposition would then have complete power over whether Parliament would be dissolved. It might delay for all kinds of partisan reasons of its own – for instance, David Cameron might have delayed in Autumn 2007 (remember how much of a triumph it was considered for him when he scared Brown out of calling an election?). How would that be an improvement? The fact is, you cannot legislate politics, calculation and manoeuvering out of the constitution. You can only distribute the political power differently.

    We’re better off having flexible-term Parliaments, as we do now. A PM may have a heavy political price to pay if he or she calls and election in circumstances people think are dodgy. And ultimately, a totally independent figure, the Queen, can refuse a dissolution if she thinks it’s being requested abusively. It is only requested, remember.

  4. Tom – good point about Callaghan. Of course Harold Wilson was such a tactician, he’d have used his power of timing to great effect. Under the current constitution he couldn’t ask for a dissolution on behalf of his successor. Cameron’s new whim would give a PM in his position exactly that power.

    Again – it’s difficult to take power out of the system. Much easier to shift to around, in which case, somebody always gets to take advantage of the rules as they are. Better it be someone whose political future is at risk if they act abusively, than someone who has nothing left to lose.

  5. Hah, so you didn’t, sorry! I read your piece on fixed-term parliaments after this and must have got my pages confused – you raised the issue of Schroeder and the vote of confidence there, and my response was supposed to be on that one…

    Anyway, I definitely agree with you on the issue of dissolving Parliament within 6 months of a change of Prime Minister. It’s pretty clearly aimed at those people who dislike Labour and wanted a chance to vote them out in 2007, and ignores the principle that we elect MPs not Prime Ministers (although in practice of course party leaders often do make a bigger difference to people’s votes than the constituency PPCs).

    Pretty sure I agree with you on fixed-term Parliaments, too; my point on votes of confidence was me just thinking out loud really. I reckon most of the problems could be circumvented by very careful legislation, but as you couldn’t ever properly distinguish in practice between a vote of no confidence where the government’s lost the backbenches and one where it just wants to call an election, the idea falls apart.

  6. As ever a perceptive thread. Cameron’s argument will have some attraction to those who feel that after Blair resigned Brown should not have been “allowed” to soldier on to the end of the 5 year term which (in political reality) Blair won. However, for the reasons you give, it is unworkable. It is also absolutely contrary to the idea of a fixed term parliament.

    The latter is an idea that I have never agreed with at all. Yes, the incumbent PM “may” have a tactical advantage but, as you indicate, a fixed term parliament contains the possibility that a PM might engineer events so that, as the end of term approaches, he is in an advantageous position anyway. Fixed term parliaments also contain the difficulty of getting rid of some abysmal future administration. [You never know: we might get one!].

    Is it not interesting just how long the manifestos last? Less than 2 weeks as things stand. Politicians, blowing with the latest gust, bend even their manifestos to suit. Hardly worth the paper they are written on are they? [Of course, having something in the manifesto might help if the House of Lords is getting difficult].

    I agree that Her Majesty is an “independent figure” but the formal powers of the Crown (e.g. to refuse a dissolution) have to exercised with enormous care. There would need to be very powerful evidence that a P.M. was actually abusing his right to “request” a dissolution.
    .-= ObiterJ´s last blog ..Youth Court Trial =-.

  7. It becomes very, very difficulty to sack a government you hate – a power the British people don’t realise they have, and perhaps won’t, till it’s gone. I’m not sure what the solution is in the context of three-party politics. I do know PR for the House of Commons would be a mistake.

    In what sense do the British people have the power “to sack a government [they] hate” under the current system? Consider the most recent general election in 2005: 65% of the population — a landslide — voted against Labour. Nevertheless Blair and then Brown had no trouble in governing for the next five years.

    In the forthcoming 2010 general election it is not implausible that Labour will win less than 30% of the vote and yet still have a good chance of remaining in government.

  8. we elect MPs not Prime Ministers

    In theory, perhaps. In reality the House of Commons’s principal function is to be an electoral college to decide who shall be the dictator for the next five years. Given the tiny percentage of votes that MPs cast against the party whip, it would be positively irrational for a voter to evaluate any factor other than a candidate’s party affiliation in deciding on how to cast his or her vote.

  9. @dw:

    In what sense do the British people have the power “to sack a government [they] hate” under the current system?”

    In 1997, Labour only got 43% of the votes – but that result sacked John Major’s Conservative government. Under a proportional system, Labour would have been well short of a majority, with less than 290 of the 659 seats – and in effect it would have been up to the Liberal Democrats to decide whether they would go into government with Labour or the Conservatives. They would have been the ones with the power to sack John Major – or not. You’d almost certainly have been right to think Paddy Ashdown would have opted to support a Labour-led government in some shape or form; but the point is, you would have depended on his decision.

    Just as now, if we get a hung Parliament, who governs may depend on Nick Clegg. He hasn’t actually said who he’d support (just, as I understand it, that he won’t support a Labour PM or negotiate with Labour first, if Labour comes third in votes). His position is that he’d insist on PR, I think – not even on a referendum. Interesting, that, since, assuming a result in line with recent polls, something like Con 35% LibDem 29% Labour 28%, a clear majority of voters (64%) would have voted against PR. Don’t you have a problem with that?

    In contrast, in the real history of 1997, who governed next was determined entirely by voters, with politicians having no say, and John Major having no chance to negotiate a renewed lease on power. That’s the sense in which British voters can sack the government.

    I accept that “first past the post” is very unfair. I think boundaries probably need redrawing to favour Labour less, and I may well support AV. It’d be good, though, if supporters of PR for the Commons (I used to be one myself… ) accepted, equally, that PR also has its disadvantages (transferring power to politicians), and is even in some ways unfair (as in my example of Nick Clegg being able to force through PR on clear minority support).

    There is no perfect system.

  10. @Carl Gardner:

    I decided to get some actual evidence about which system, First Past the Post or PR, makes it easier to “get rid” of an unpopular government.

    I compared Irish and UK general elections since 1970. Ireland has used PR under Single Transferable Vote (STV) for all these elections (incidentally STV is the PR system I myself favour).

    For each election I looked at
    * the percentage of votes cast against the government (i.e. for any party not represented in the outgoing government)
    * whether there was a change of government (I only count a change of government if no party from the outgoing government is represented in the incoming government — a “clean sweep” if you will).

    The full data are below (derived from Wikipedia). The message is pretty clear: under Ireland’s STV system it is significantly easier to get rid of an unpopular government that under the UK’s system. 58% of voters was sufficient in any of the Irish elections to remove the incumbent government, and in some cases 54% was enough.

    By contrast, Labour in 2005 survived even though opposed by 65% of the population. That was an extreme case, but only slightly. In October 1974 the Wilson regime survived a vote of 61% against, and the minimum vote required to remove the incumbent government in any of these elections was 62% (in February 1974).

    These data are obviously not conclusive, and more countries would need to be studied. But I hope this information will make you and others hesitate to proclaim that the UK system is good at getting rid of an unpopular government. It isn’t.

    Apologies in advance if the formatting doesn’t come out right.

    Ireland 1997: 50% no
    Ireland 2002: 54% no
    Ireland 1973: 54% yes
    Ireland 1982: 55% yes
    Ireland 1981: 55% yes
    Ireland 2007: 56% no
    Ireland 1992: 56% no
    Ireland 1989: 56% no
    Ireland 1977: 58% yes
    Ireland 1987: 66% yes

    UK 1987: 58% no
    UK 1983: 58% no
    UK 1992: 58% no
    UK 2001: 59% no
    UK 1974: 61% no
    UK 1974: 62% yes
    UK 1979: 63% yes
    UK 2005: 65% no
    UK 1970: 67% yes
    UK 1997: 69% yes

  11. In my previous post, the number for UK 1970 should be 57% not 67%: my apologies.

  12. Thanks, DW: that’s by far the best argument I’ve ever read or heard against my point. Of course the 1970 57% statistic affects your argument a little bit, since it means that, not 62%, was the minimum required in the UK. That is an outlier, though, to be fair. I accept you’ve demonstrated Ireland seems to have a few percentage points more sensitivity to sacking, if that’s the concept we’re looking for.

    I think you’re right that the “clean sweep” is the fair comparison. I couldn’t accept the government had been truly sacked if any of the main parties in it stayed in power. I know a change from a Fianna Fail led government to a Fine Gael led government is a major change – but if some Dick Spring figure stays in high office, it’s not quite the same as a clearout.

    Two points in response, though. First, your stats interestingly show that Ireland’s system isn’t noticeably more logical than our own in terms of higher percentages against the government translating neatly and proportionately into a higher likelihood of their being sacked. Or did something change between 1982 and 1989 to make Ireland less “sackability-sensitive”?

    The second point is about the culture of political parties in various countries. I know Labour was in coalition with Fianna Fail in 1993-4. But otherwise, have there really been two separate “sets” of parties in Ireland – leading to a sort of “two coalition” system, mirroring Britain’s traditional two party system? That might lead to a very different set of stats from those in a country like Germany, where the past preparedness of the FDP to work with the SPD as well as the CDU/CSU and the preparedness of the SPD and CDU/CSU to work together mean there is rarely a “clean sweep” sacking of the government.

    Wasn’t 1998 the only time in the history of the Federal Republic that the government’s ever been sacked by voters in the clean-sweep sense?

  13. @Carl Gardner:

    I ran the numbers for the Federal Republic of Germany back to 1970. In a sense it’s difficult to compare, because Germany obviously has a far more consensual, inclusive political culture than the UK (or Ireland). This is shown by the fact that in most elections the majority of voters have actually supported the outgoing government (something that I’m not sure has ever happened in the UK, except for 1945!).

    However, on the two occasions where the vote against the outgoing government has exceeded 54% there has been a significant change in government. In 2005 58% of the voters opposed the outgoing SPD/Green coalition, which was replaced by a “Grand Coalition” of the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Although the SPD was still represented in government, the Chancellorship changed hands from the SPD to the CSU. And in 1998, as you say, there was a “clean sweep”, a complete replacement of the government, on a 59% adverse vote.

    Compare with the UK 2001 election in which an identical 59% opposed Tony Blair’s Labour party: it romped home with an unassailable majority in a result that the media called “the quite landslide”.

    Outgoing cabinet: CDU/SPD/CSU
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 43%
    Incoming cabinet: CDU/CSU/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet: SPD/Green
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 58%
    Incoming cabinet: CDU/SPD/CSU
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: Yes

    Outgoing cabinet: SPD/Green
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 53%
    Incoming cabinet: SPD/Green
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet:CDU/CSU/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 59%
    Incoming cabinet: SPD/Green
    Change of government?: Yes
    Change of party of chancellor?: Yes

    Outgoing cabinet:CDU/CSU/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 52%
    Incoming cabinet: CDU/CSU/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet:CDU/CSU/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 45%
    Incoming cabinet: CDU/CSU/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet:CDU/CSU/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 47%
    Incoming cabinet: CDU/CSU/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet:CDU/CSU/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 44%
    Incoming cabinet: CDU/CSU/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet:SPD/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 46%
    Incoming cabinet:SPD/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet:SPD/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet: 50%
    Incoming cabinet:SPD/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No

    Outgoing cabinet:SPD/FDP
    % of vote against outgoing cabinet:46%
    Incoming cabinet:SPD/FDP
    Change of government?: No
    Change of party of chancellor?: No


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