The Case for Ditching the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011

The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has predicted that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 might be marked for repeal if a majority Government takes office in May. That would be a welcome turn of events, as I suspect that Act may turn out to be one of the Coalition’s worst legacies.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was basically an insurance policy for the Liberal Democrats. By abolishing the Queen’s power to dissolve Parliament at any time, they made sure that David Cameron couldn’t ditch them by holding a snap election the moment the polls seemed to favor the Conservatives. Now, every Parliament will run for five years unless the House of Commons passes a motion of no-confidence in the Government, and a new Government can’t be found within two weeks.

But this approach is too rigid and inflexible. Although five years has been the maximum length of a Parliament since 1911, four years has long been the unofficial standard, and some Parliaments have been even shorter (for example, there were two General Elections in 1974). This more flexible approach minimized the chances of a lame-duck Government. In other words, it avoided the precise predicament that the Coalition now finds itself in!

The two-week delay before holding a General Election after a vote of no confidence also strikes me as problematic. For better or worse, Britain is effectively a two-party system. Since one party usually wins a clear majority, the chances of another party (or combination of parties) being able to win the confidence of the Commons are quite slim. For example, this is how the Commons looked after the 2005 General Election:

  • Labour: 355 seats
  • Tories: 198 seats
  • Lib Dems: 62 seats
  • Others: 31 seats

It’s hard to see how another Administration could have replaced Labour. Even if the Tories had been able to convince every non-Labour MP to support them (including the Scottish National Party and Sinn Fein!), they wouldn’t have had a majority. They could have tried to maintain a minority Government, but I doubt it would have lasted. Even in a situation where the gulf between the Government and the Opposition isn’t as wide (e.g., the Parliament elected in 1992), the idea that an alternative Administration could have been formed after two weeks of negotiation seems fanciful. As long as Britain remains a two-party system, a General Election will be the best response to a vote of no confidence.

The only real advantage to a fixed-term Parliament is that it provides a level playing field since the Prime Minister can’t manipulate the timing of the election to suit his party. But it’s easy to overstate the benefit this provides, and there are plenty of examples of Prime Ministers who lost elections even though they controlled the timing.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was a solution in search of a problem. Britain would be better off without it, and I hope D’Arcy is right and we’ll see a Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (Repeal) Bill shortly after the Queen’s Speech.

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4 Responses to The Case for Ditching the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I would be inclined to disagree with your arguments about ending fixed-term parliaments. You are actually conflating two arguments: that there should be no fixed term at all and that a five year fixed term is too long. It is quite possible to argue for the latter without arguing for the former. The one big disadvantage of the system before fixed term parliaments was that the Prime Minister with the Chancellor could manipulate the economy so as to get the best economic conditions for winning an election with no regard as to whether these manipulations were in the best long-term interests of the economy; this happened quite frequently (although not always successfully) in the second half of the 20th Century.
    To use the 2005 election as the sole example is unrealistic; at this point the Tories were still unelectable, so the question was not of a choice between potential governments but more of how large the Labour majority would be. In fact, the Labour majority was considerably reduced from their 2001 election victory.
    You are right that, in general, the FPTP electoral system usually does produce one party with a clear majority of seats even on a popular vote that is well under 50%. For a long time the two main parties would aim for 40% to get an overall majority; now it seems like the figure could be as low as 35% for Labour (and probably 38% for the Tories). A popular support that is this low raises questions about the mandate that a government has to carry out its policies; this is far more serious than the length of the Parliamentary term. One could, of course, argue that the two Coalition parties in 2010 together had both a majority of seats and a majority of the popular vote, so actually had a better mandate for their actions than had one of the two parties scraped a bare majority.
    So, I do not think that you have made the case for removing fixed term parliaments entirely. The second part of your argument is that five years is too long and should be reduced to four years as being representative of typical parliaments in the past. There is an argument for this in that governments tend to “run out of steam” in the final year of a five-year parliament, but again this is a consequence of governments wishing to go to the country after four years unless forced by circumstances to go right up to the end of a parliamentary term (as in 1992, 1997 and 2010). Changing to a four-year fixed term would mean that the parliamentary cycle became locked to the local government cycle; in 2010 when London council elections coincided with the parliamentary elections the local turnout also increased but there was a considerable rise both in the number of spoilt ballot papers and “rogue” results where electors had clearly voted in line with national politics with no knowledge of whom the local candidates were. At least a five-year fixed term only produces this problem once every 20 years rather than every election for the unlucky local authorities.
    Of course, if we had a better electoral system, such as STV in multi-member constituencies (typically returning 5-6 MPs each) as espoused by ERS, many of the issues concerning mandates would go away and the fixed-length parliament issue would be less important; however, as both Labour and the Tories campaigned against any change from FPTP (which suits both parties) I do not expect any change soon.

  2. jasonloch says:

    Thanks for the comment! You’re correct, of course, that the 2005 election isn’t necessarily typical, but as I pointed out in the original post, even in cases where the gulf between the two main parties was narrower, it’s hard to see how the Opposition could have formed a viable Government. That’s just a consequence of using FPTP, and I agree that it would be better if the Commons switched to something like STV in multi-member constituencies.

    I’m still not convinced that a five-year term is ideal. I generally think that four years would be better. You make a good point regarding the local government cycle, but I don’t know if the problems you mentioned in London are necessarily representative of the whole UK. Also, if general elections were *always* held in conjunction with local government elections, I would hope that the situation would would become less confusing to the voters. Of course, it would also be possible to avoid the clash entirely and move to a three-year term like they have in Australia and New Zealand.

    Your comment about past Prime Ministers and Chancellors trying to game the economy in order to gain electoral advantage has made me curious. Do you know if there has been any research into this? I would be very interested to learn more about it.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      The specific example that I would point you towards was the “Barber boom” of the early 1970s. I am sure that this has been analysed, but my view of it was living through the time as a young graduate and just starting my PhD (in astronomy), so I was not very politically aware then. I think that tax reductions before an election, often a year earlier because the increased spending takes time to come through into the economy, were a fairly common tactic of both Tory and Labour governments from 1950 onwards, but the “Barber boom” was an extreme example.

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