Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)
They are not the answer – we need to start from proportional representation in order to move towards constitutional reform.
I don’t believe in fixed-term parliaments. I don’t believe in Father Christmas either. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I think they are intrinsically bad ideas – either of them – but that I don’t believe they exist.
In reality there is a spectrum of possibilities between the present system that is in effect at the personal discretion of the prime minister, and the fully fixed terms that govern the electoral cycles for the US president and Congress. In the United States, the mandate for the executive is personal to the president and there are constitutionally defined rules of succession that govern those very rare mid-term changes in president. Congress is separately elected and cannot – short of impeachment – overthrow the executive.
The problem in Britain is that in a parliamentary system the executive is formed from the legislature and depends on its confidence for the continuance of government. It would be difficult, and not conducive to good government, if a parliament such as the one elected in February 1974 (in which even a combination of the Liberals with either Conservative or Labour would not have produced a majority) had been required to stay in office for four years at the mercy of Ulster unionists and Scottish nationalists. Sometimes things change during a parliament, with byelections, defections and radically different issues emerging mid-parliament that throw up new political alignments. While perhaps not a huge issue, a rigid timetable such as the one proposed by Sir Menzies Campbell would sometimes require elections to be held in inappropriate circumstances. I can well remember 2001, when a May election (after precisely four years) was planned but postponed for one month because of the foot and mouth outbreak – this would be impossible under the Liberal Democrat proposition.
Therefore there has to be some sort of escape clause to dissolve parliaments before the full term is up. Once one has conceded the principle of an escape clause, the difference between fixed-term parliaments and the current position is then merely a matter of degree and technique. It is very doubtful to what extent fixed terms can really be entrenched in UK law – short of writing a constitution it would be open to any future parliament to reverse a law or resolution for fixed terms or abolish any external structures set up to try to entrench a fixed-term rule.
As we have seen in the last few weeks, being ready to fight an early election is a matter of political machismo, and for an opposition to try to deny the government the ability to call an early poll would invite allegations of being, in Margaret Thatcher’s fine Lincolnshire word, “frit” – a much better way of putting it than the current vulgarity that is “bottled“. The demand for fixed terms is part of a wider tendency to try to take the politics out of politics, and steadily reduce the scope of decisions that can be taken by democratically accountable politicians and out-source it to rules and supposed non-political managers and experts. Some of the most preposterous, such as Conor Burns’s fit of the vapours at Conservative Home imagine that, shock horror, party politics wasn’t the main factor in election timing before that horrid Mr Brown did then didn’t want an election this year. The truth is that election timing is inherently political, determined by a range of political factors, and it is desirable – and actually inescapable – that the decision will be taken politically.
Germany has fixed term parliaments, but it is obviously possible to engineer an early election as in 1972, 1983 and 2005 even under the eyes of a constitutional court with powers distinct from legislature and executive. What we are actually missing is a head of state, with real political powers, who would be in a position to accept or deny a dissolution request, but the preservation of the monarchy requires that it be kept away from such highly political matters. An elected president would be more capable of withholding consent for dissolution than the monarch.
There is something to be said for giving the control over calling an election to the House of Commons itself, to reduce the remaining areas of royal prerogative a bit further and put parliament in charge, but one should be under no illusions as to what that would accomplish by way of regulating the timing of elections.
To come up with a workable solution seems to require radical constitutional change, such as separation of powers, a written constitution or the abolition of the monarchy. As part of a written constitutional settlement, a fixed term may not be a bad idea, but as a stand-alone reform it does not work and it should certainly not be first on the shopping list of desirable reforms. A better way of progressing would be to have a parliament elected by a more proportional electoral system. In a system in which coalition was the norm, election timing could be an aspect of the partnership agreement. First past the post is a major reason why governments will try to manipulate election timing (or, as in the 1950s and 1980s, manipulate the economy around a four-year electoral cycle) because the rewards for getting the timing right are so disproportionate. There would be less incentive to play games if parties got more or less the proportion of seats that their proportion of votes can justify.
Political discretion over when elections are called is a non-problem. I have great respect for some of the people arguing for it, but I must part company with them on this one. It is the last, not the first, constitutional reform to consider.