Fix that term: the case for fixed term Parliaments

It’s 80 minutes into an Arsenal-Tottenham football derby. Tottenham lead 1-0. Arsenal are piling on the pressure. The Tottenham manager shouts at the ref, “OK, that’s it – can we have the final score now please?” The ref agrees, all the players troop off the pitch 10 minutes early and Tottenham get the three points.

Sounds absurd doesn’t it (and I don’t just mean the idea of Tottenham beating Arsenal!)?

But that’s what passes for normal in the world of Palace of Westminster politics when it comes to general election dates. The Prime Minister – and the Prime Minister alone – gets to choose the date. Now – in theory Parliaments last for five years and the monarch has to agree to any earlier election, but in practice – the PM always gets his or her way.

Yet why should the PM get to choose the election date? We all know how PMs have chosen the date – they choose a date when they think they have a decent chance of winning. Fixing part of an election system just so you can maximise your own chances of winning – isn’t that normally called rigging an election?

You might think that is a rather drastic charge, but what other part of choosing the terms and conditions of an election could be left to the Prime Minister to choose – and choose just on the basis of what maximises his or her chance of re-election? Imagine the outrage if a Prime Minister got up and said, “You know, I think we won’t let the over-85s vote this time round.” The power to set the date of an election is an extremely powerful tool to influence its outcome – and so one that shouldn’t be wielded for partisan advantage.

Democracy after all is for all of us – it’s for the public to control who runs things, not for those in power to manipulate the public into re-electing them.

And that’s why the case for fixed-term Parliaments is so persuasive. Don’t let the Prime Minister fiddle the system to suit themselves – instead fix the date of election. (Personally, I’d prefer scope for two variations on this – an automatic general election on the appointment of a new Prime Minister, because although we don’t have a Presidential system in practice many voters do cast their votes based on who the leaders are, and the possibility of cross-party agreement for a general election at other times to cover unusual circumstances of crises. But both of these are only elaborations of the core point – elections are for the public’s, not the PM’s, convenience).

There is a glimmer of hope after the Grand Old Duke of York farce of Gordon Brown’s nearly-but-not-quite calling of a general election after the Labour Party conference in 2007 where he marched all his troops up to the top of the hill ready for an election, and then marched them all back down again. Such blatant posturing poured particular discredit on the exercise of the power to fix the election date.

It also highlighted the significant costs and inconvenience to others – such as the staff who have to actually organise the running of elections – when they are messed around with weeks of “will he? won’t he?” stories rather than having a clear date and timetable to work to.

We now have the best opportunity since the early 1990s to see fixed-term Parliaments introduced. Back then the Labour Party – including one Mr G Brown – supported them in their 1992 general election manifesto. Shame that when they got their hands on power those views never saw the light of day again – convenient, hey? But after Grand Old Duke of York saga, even some in the Labour party are muttering about the need to change the rules. The same too is true of the Conservatives – not a party traditionally warm to such ideas, but having nearly been on the receiving end of such an abuse of power, there is hope there too.

Of course my own party, the Liberal Democrats, have consistently argued for fixed-term Parliaments. But with signs of movement in the other parties too, we now face the real prospect of being able to secure change.

You can help bring about this change by backing the cross-party campaign at www.fixedterm.org.uk.

This article first appeared in Liberator.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2008

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