Friday, 14 May 2010
One of the most striking statements of the last few days was William Hague’s claim that ‘the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May, 2015’. That is, by the way, 7 May. One for the diary, maybe? And it’s all because of this clause in the coalition agreement:
The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.
This has provoked a series of complaints, about being its supposedly undemocratic nature. It would, for example, stop a government defeated by one vote on a vote of confidence, as Callaghan was in 1979, from having to go to the country.
Although it’s not very clear from the coalition agreement, what the scheme is doing is decoupling two concepts: ‘confidence’ and ‘dissolution’. So a government that lost a vote of confidence (like Callaghan’s) would still be expected to resign. But, unlike at present, that would not trigger an (almost) automatic general election. Instead an alternative governing majority would be sought, perhaps under a new Prime Minister, perhaps under a new arrangement of parties. If no alternative could be found, then parties would come together to trigger the 55% dissolution requirement and an election would be held.
One problem that many of those arguing against this have is that fixed term parliaments were a manifesto pledge for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats (though not the Conservatives). And here’s the problem: if you have fixed term parliaments, then you need a mechanism of some sort that prevents the governing party ending them at will. Else, how do you simply stop the government deliberately losing a vote of confidence, and triggering an election, whenever it likes? A fixed term parliament, without some mechanism to stop that sort of manoeuvring, isn’t fixed at all.
But even if you accept that the ideas are worth considering, there are still all sorts of interesting questions:
1. Why 5 years? Most recent UK Parliaments have lasted for four years. Moreover, Scottish, Welsh and London elections are on a four-year cycles, establishing Westminster on a four-year cycle as well – and starting now - would also ensure that they didn’t occur on the same days.
2. Why 55%? If the aim is to stop a party collapsing its own government, then 55% seems very low. Whilst it would work in this particular parliament, in most recent elections (including 1983, 1987, 1997, and 2001) the government would have had enough MPs to trigger the 55% hurdle on their own. The Scottish Parliament, which has a similar scheme, has a 66% hurdle, and that would be more significant.
3. How is this to be embedded? It is not clear what this ‘binding’ resolution is. Westminster doesn’t have binding resolutions, or laws. What is to stop a government – with a majority, but not 55% - simply repealing the bill establishing fixed parliaments, and then triggering an election? It might look a bit shifty, but it could always be justified in the ‘good of the country’ or something similar.
4. Did anyone consult the Queen about this, since formally dissolution is in the hands of the Monarch?
5. And what effect will this have on party discipline? Before, governments always had recourse to making an issue a vote of confidence, which would make all but the most recalcitrant MPs come back into line, for fear of triggering an election. Under the proposed scheme, losing a vote of confidence might bring down the administration, but as long as it could muster 55% it wouldn’t need to go to the country.
These are interesting times to be studying the constitution; they might also be interesting times to be studying party discipline.
Professor Philip Cowley