Monday, 11 August 2014

The Problem with Fixed Term Parliaments

Philip Norton, Lord Norton of Louth discusses the problems of fixed term Parliaments.

There are problems with fixed-term Parliaments and there are particular problems with the
Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. 

Fixed-term Parliaments limit rather than enhance voter choice.  The outcome of one election cannot be undone until the end of the stipulated term.  There may be the collapse of one government and inter-party bargaining producing another.  In such circumstances, voters are denied the opportunity to endorse what amounts to a new government.  There may be government instability or a largely ineffective government staggering on without achieving anything.  As the then Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Waddington, put it in 1991:

Is it better for a government unable to govern to go to the country to try to obtain a new mandate or for the same government to spend their time fixing up deals in which the unfortunate electorate has no say whatsoever?...  The people not the parties should decide who governs’.  (HL Deb, 529, 260)

In essence, fixed-term Parliaments rob the system of flexibility and limit voter choice.  That choice is especially limited by the provisions of the 2011 Act.  Although the policy of the Liberal Democrats was for four-year Parliaments, agreement was quickly reached in May 2010 on a five-year term.  This, according to David Laws, was to allow time to implement plans before worrying about the timing of the electoral cycle.  However, five-year terms mean that voters will have fewer opportunities than before to go to the polls.  Most post-war Parliaments have not gone their maximum length, whereas now a five-year term is the norm and not the exception. 

David Laws’ revelation of the coalition negotiations also implicitly accepts the argument that fixed-term Parliaments facilitate long election campaigns.  That is a practical objection, the realities of which we are seeing in the last session of the present Parliament.  MPs are not expected to be very visible at Westminster during the session – from September, as one put it, ‘I’ll be out campaigning’.  In terms of legislation, the heavy lifting will be done by the House of Lords. 

The other objection – made in evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee – was that knowing well in advance when the next election will be may encourage a government to manipulate the economic cycle to their maximum advantage. 

We then come to the 2011 Act.  The Act was the consequence of the need to build trust between coalition partners, was agreed in haste and by negotiators who were not especially well versed in the nation’s constitutional arrangements.  The Act did not do precisely what the short title suggests.  Rather, the Act provides for semi-fixed terms.  There are provisions that would enable early elections in certain circumstances.  They arguably give false hope that voter choice may not be as limited as under strictly fixed-term provisions. An election may be triggered if a vote of no confidence is carried against a government (and within 14 days a new government is unable to carry a vote of confidence) or if two-thirds of all MPs vote for an early election.  It is difficult to envision when the latter provision would be employed.  Parties are not going to vote for an early election if the opinion polls are not propitious.  A government could seek an early election by engineering a vote of no confidence in itself, but that is not likely to enhance the reputation of the political system.  The Act is silent on what happens in the event of a government imploding and then resigning.  The provisions of the 2011 Act are not triggered.  We would then be in what has been described as the ‘Belgian situation’, the Parliament continuing without a government being in existence. 

It is not at all clear that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has delivered benefits to the British political system.

Philip Norton, the Lord Norton of Louth is a member of the House of Lords and a Professor at the University of Hull. He frequently blogs at The Norton View and is a contributor to Lords of the Blog. He tweets at @LordNortonLouth