Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Coalition’s Political Reform Agenda: Some words on Fixed Term Parliaments

This is the first in a short series of articles on the new coalition agreement's political reform section. As a political scientist this section particularly interests me, partially from a professional POV and partially because hey, it's my passion. Yet, it should interest everyone. Nick Clegg has referred to the section as the 'Biggest shake-up of our democracy" since the 1832 reform act. While this statement was laughed at in some quarters (Universal Suffrage, the 1921 Parliament Act etc. Are certainly similarly heavy weight contenders) there is an element of truth to it in that not since then has this country attempted to change so many things at once. Yet any constitutional reform uniformly creates winners and losers, and changes the nature of our democracy. Perhaps the most controversial element of the constitutional reforms being pursued by the coalition is the introduction of fixed term parliaments.

Traditionally the British Prime Minister has had the capability to call an election when he or she sees fit, by simply asking the Queen to dissolve parliament. Under the new coalition agreement, this will no longer be the case and fixed terms of five years will be the norm. Officially all three parties support this, but in actuality this has been among the most controversial elements of the entire coalition programme so far. The big disagreement surrounds the number of MPs – 55% needed to dissolve parliament and force a new election. Many have pointed out that the Conservatives have 47% of the seats currently and can therefore block a parliamentary dissolution, arguing that this is undemocratic, and that it should be 50%+1. Yet equally it could be pointed out that in 2005 Tony Blair's Labour received 55.2% of the seats on 35.2% of the vote. Under these rules he could still dissolve parliament unilaterally, simply by whipping his party into it. It should be noted that dissolution is not the same as a no confidence motion (which still requires 50%), which brings down a government. If a government collapses under a no confidence vote it is almost certain that both it and the opposition would vote for dissolution (blocking dissolution and clawing in and holding on would look desperate, and only lead to a massive pummeling at the polls later), it is also likely that the opposition would not be able to form a government. It has not yet been properly announced what happens if neither government nor opposition can form a majority, but I suspect some sort of dissolution would be on the cards (probably the Queen would regain the ability to dissolve parliament at this time and this time only to prevent deadlock). While much fuss is being made about the 55% threshold I do not think it is too large, and it may well be too small considering that we have an electoral system that CAN give parties 55% of the seats. In the Scottish parliament the threshold is 2/3rds, meaning widespread consensus is required to call an election. The most important detail vis a vis the 55% threshold in my mind is what happens if no one can form a workable majority. I look forward to seeing the details of this in the bill itself.

More questionable, to my mind, is the five year term itself. Recently four has become the norm (though Gordon Brown and John Major both held on as long as they could for obvious reasons). Typically PMs that expect to win go to the polls after 4 years, PMs that don't wait until the last possible minute and go at 5. The fact that Cameron and Clegg have chosen to set the date at five years off is therefore intriguing. It suggests that they do not expect this to be a popular government (which is reasonable, considering the economic difficulties they are up against) and may expect to see an economic upturn in 5 years large enough to propel them into another victory. It is certainly true that this proposal has partially been drafted with coalition stability in mind, but I suspect that the 55% dissolution will prove to be less important than the 5 year term.

It seems extremely cynical, to me, to define the length of fixed-term parliaments upon the basis of the short-term partisan interests of a single government. Considering that four year terms have become the norm, this seems the natural length for a fixed term parliament. Nonetheless, it is hardly new that a government is introducing constitutional changes designed for its own benefit - Labour certainly did (earlier this year I did a short comparative study on the electoral systems for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments in which I demonstrated that both systems had clearly been designed with Labour's tactical priorities in mind). Sadly it is rare that any politician attempts to change a constitution unless there is a clear benefit for themselves.

1 comment:

  1. 'It should be noted that dissolution is not the same as a no confidence motion (which still requires 50%),'

    The main problem with this whole debate seems to rest precisely in the fact that very few of its critics note the difference above, in attempting to portray it as the Tories clinging on the power.

    Nevertheless, maybe I am missing something, but wwhy not do the logical thing and set a deadline (30 days) after a succesful no-confidence vote to let the other parties try and form a government and if not, Parliament would be dissolved automatically? That would spare them the debates...