Monday, October 22, 2007

Fixed Term Parliaments

I'm not exactly fiercely opposed to fixed term parliaments. I doubt they would bring the country crashing to a halt. It just seems that those proposing them haven't really identified a problem. While Conor Burns clearly really hates Brown all of the other examples he brings up of governments that went to the polls early he thinks are legitimate. See these sections of his ConservativeHome article:

"Looking back over all the elections since the Second World War there have actually been very few serious accusations of the incumbent Government abusing the constitutional right of the Prime Minister to seek a dissolution of Parliament before the end of the full term. Some mild, and predictable, partisan noises have been made about advantageous budgets prior to the elections of 1955, 1966, 1970, and 1987 (2 Labour, 2 Conservative). In both 1964 and 1978 it is arguable that the governing party postponed by 6 months from their planned election date in the expectation or hope of better conditions at the latter time (1 Labour, 1 Conservative)

So where then would Gordon Brown’s aborted snap election have sat in the historical sweep? It would have clearly been out of kilter with every other election we have seen since the Second World War.

Did Brown require to get a working majority as Wilson did in 1966 or October 1974? No, Labour has a working majority of 69 seats.
Does Brown face a national crisis such as Ted Heath confronted/created in 1974? Not that we yet know about.
Did he want to call a snap ‘mandate’ election a la Eden in 1955? Well Eden called an election quickly. Brown has been Prime Minister since the summer.


Every previous Prime Minister has had profound respect for the British constitution. All of them have used their power to call an election in order to win – but only because each has believed that their vision would be best for Britain. Not this one."

If most Prime Ministers do not seek to abuse the system, Conor Burns argues that only one has, then there is only a problem if those that abuse the system benefit. If they do then others will have an incentive to emulate their misbehaviour which will mean things get worse and those that have misbehaved will have benefitted from their misdeeds which is morally distasteful. However, the only Prime Minister identified by Conor Burns as abusing the system has gained nothing. In fact, he has taken a massive beating in the media and the polls.

That's the system working! A successful constitution (written or unwritten) is not one that no one can abuse seeking partisan gain. Such a system does not exist. Instead, a successful constitution is one where that partisan gain does not materialise. Gordon Brown's comically unsuccessful attempt to manipulate the electoral calender to his own ends demonstrated the strength of the British system, not its weakness.

Iain Dale further confuses matters by arguing that Fixed Terms are great because they don't need to be fixed. What the point of these unfixed Fixed Terms is supposed to be I'm unsure.

We should all be cautious of constitutional changes that initially seem sensible but address no significant problem. Constitutions are complex creatures and the most successful generally evolve slowly over decades and centuries. There can be major unintended consequences to any changes. Screwing with the British constitution, one of history's most stable and effective, for transient or insubstantial reasons is dangerous.


Tony said...

Yes Matt, screwing with the British constitution, one of history's most stable and effective, for transient or insubstantial reasons is dangerous.

That is exactly what Gordon Brown was doing and it served to highlight the potential for an abuse of process. There is no justification for a Prime Minster having the right to call an election when it suits him.

I believe a formalisation of when it is appropriate to call an election is required and setting a term limit is unlikely to have unintended consequences. It does not adversely affect local government, so why should national government be any different?

Matthew Sinclair said...


I disagree. As I explained earlier I think that Brown didn't undermine the British constitution at all. He inadvertently strengthened it. His attempt to manipulate the electoral cycle blew up in his face proving that our constitution is still robust and putting up a warning to anyone else who would be so foolhardy.

The whole point of unintended consequences is that you don't see them coming. There are a host of ways in which local and national elections are different. Perhaps one of those will cause this to have particular negative effects, perhaps fixed terms are related to the low turnouts at local elections. I don't know, as I said I don't expect fixed terms to bring the country crashing to a halt but without an imperative we should always be sceptical of constitutional change.


Dave Cole said...

There has been rather a lot of constitutional change of late - not least the Supreme Court - and I'm not sure that the best idea wouldn't be not to play with the constitution for a decade or so before we know how it works now.

The British constitution is something of a tapestry; pulling at one thread can upset a lot of others. Being able to vary the length of a parliament can and has provided a useful safety valve, as when Wilson called a snap election.