We are starting a period, that like 1997, is a paradise for fans of constitutional reform. The new coalition, artfully dubbed ‘ConDemnation’ by the Mirror, is embarking on a set reforms, several of which seem to have written on the back on envelope. This of course is constitutional reform UK style – don’t bother with a constitutional convention, independent enquiry, or even all party agreement. If you’ve got a majority in Parliament, go ahead and change the rules. The next government can always change them back again. Simple, ineffective, usually ill thought out, and piecemeal. That, apparently, is the way we like it.
One such reform currently proposed is to institute fixed term parliaments. This has been a long-standing demand of reformers, and should be viewed sympathetically. Until now, the Prime Minister had the power to call an election whenever he or she chooses, within a maximum time frame of 5 years since the previous election. This gives a substantial advantage to the incumbent, allowing them to go to the polls when things are going their way, and avoid the electorate when things are not going to plan. This part of the proposal is widely supported, and naturally is the part that David Cameron is eager to promote:
“I’m the first prime minister in British history to give up the right unilaterally to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament. This is a huge change in our system, it is a big giving-up of power.
If we had a presidential system this would all make perfect sense. The president would be elected for a fixed term (as in the USA), would seek to get his/her programme through the legislative arm, and would face the voters at the end of the term. The UK, however has a parliamentary democracy.
We elect 650 representatives to the House of Commons, and they then vote in a government, usually the leader of the party with the most seats. A government is only sustained by their majority in the house of commons, voting for their programme. Should they lose that majority, either through by-elections or through MPs withdrawing their support, they face a ‘vote of no confidence’ and through this mechanism the government is brought down. In the past a vote of no confidence has almost always been followed by a general election. The prime minister, having lost the support of parliament, went to the queen and formally dissolved it.
What happens if dates of parliament are fixed? Lets say the current government was brought down by a vote of no confidence (say by the Liberals quitting) in 2013. The next election is not due until May 2015. What happens for those 2 years? In some systems, the right to dissolve parliament, and thus call an election is granted to a third party, the head of state. In Britain that would be, er the queen. While we don’t seem to quite want rid of the monarchy we don’t want them to have any actual power. That would just be embarrassing.
The logical approach seems to be, following a vote of no-confidence, there should be an attempt to put together an alternative government, whether merely under a new prime minister, or a whole new combination of parties. In the current parliament that would be a ‘rainbow coalition’ with labour, the liberal democrats and a few small parties. If the parties could agree such a coalition, they could then serve out the final 2 years of the parliamentary term. All well and good. But what if no alternative coalition could be formed? What if the labour party decided it was not in its interest to form a coalition for 2 years, as it fancied its chances in an immediate election. The logical solution would be a mechanism like this: following a vote of no confidence, there was an allotted period of time in which a new government could be formed (say 2 weeks). At the end of this period, if it had not been possible to form a new coalition, a new general election would automatically be called. This would bring the best of both worlds; the neutrality of fixed term parliaments and a clear mechanism for when a government falls in the middle of a term.
Sadly, this is not what has been proposed.
Currently there is no proposal for an automatic dissolution of parliament after a set amount of time in which no government can be formed. Instead there is a rather bizarre proposal: parliament can only be dissolved before end of the fixed term if 55% of MPs vote to do so.
A threshold of 55% is unprecedented in British politics. In every other case, a simple majority in parliament is sufficient, 50% + 1. A simple majority will continue to be sufficient to win a vote of no confidence against the government, as it will in all other cases. In this parliament, while this Conservatives do not have an overall majority, they hold 47% of the seats. All of the other parties therefore, hold only 53% of the seats between them, not enough to force a dissolution. It would require 14 Conservative MPs to rebel and vote for dissolution. So we could see a situation in which a minority Conservative government could not pass any legislation, due to having no majority but no election could be called, due to the party holding a ‘blocking’ quota of more than 45% of the seats. This is surely ridiculous.
So if it’s so foolish, why is being proposed? The answer would seem to be naked political self-interest. The Liberal Democrats fear that the Conservatives would want to call an election in a few years time, at a point when the Conservatives might win, and they might be decimated. That’s why they demanded a fixed term parliament, so the two would be bound together. The Conservatives, in turn, fear that the Liberals could try to bring down the government at a point beneficial to them, by voting with Labour and the small parties for a vote of no confidence and therefore (under the old system) a dissolution. Therefore in exchange for granting the LD’s fixed term parliaments, they’ve demanded that 55% of MPs (which the other parties don’t have) are necessary for parliament to be prematurely dissolved. It’s not logical, it’s not democratic, and it’s blatantly partisan.
So what should happen?
1) As part of the bill to legislate for fixed term parliaments, there should be a clause that says; following a vote of no confidence, a new government should be formed. If this is not possible within a set time frame, a general election is triggered. The 55% rule is thus unnecessary and should be scrapped.
2) The fixed term should be 4 years rather than 5. The Levellers famous demand was for annual elections, and while that may be unlikely, we should certainly be demanding more frequent opportunities to vote rather than less. Constant 5 year terms would render the political class even less responsive to the populace than they already are.
3) We should stop doing constitutional reform on the hoof. Making major reforms like these on the basis of the arithmetic in one particular parliament, to benefit certain political parties is scandalous, and makes us look like we never left the Victorian era. We need a citizens convention to examine all the major issues; electoral reform, house of lords, devolution/ the ‘west lothian question‘, and even the monarchy. They should sit for a year, take expert advice, then draw up a set of proposals that could be put to the country in a referendum. Only then will we see reform that is neutral, logical and lasting.