Fixed-terms Parliaments Bill – 2nd Reading

I’ve always believed that we should have fixed-term Parliaments.

Pasted below is an article I wrote for Liberator magazine about this in January 2008. Today is the 2nd Reading of the Bill that will, if it passes, introduce fixed-term Parliaments. What’s your view?

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

Of course, when I wrote this article, I thought that we would have a chance of the Labour government bringing in fixed term parliaments – but it didn’t happen. Now I hope it will.

0 thoughts on “Fixed-terms Parliaments Bill – 2nd Reading

  1. Fixed term parliaments are theoretically pleasing on the surface. They cut down months of tedious campaigning, people know when the next election is coming, they give a firm structure to proceedings.

    But this is really quite superficial. What they enable is unpopular governments hanging on. Roughly, we have elections every four years; only Major and Brown have hung on for five years in the last few decades. Imposing five year terms is an absolute stunning piece of political fixing. It imposes five years of every government on the population, without us even being asked. A four year fixed term might be reasonable, but five years is outrageous. That you support such a proposal is symptomatic of being a member of a dying political party which will be swallowed by the Tories as its members drift away, abandoned in the centre ground and left to their own devices.

    Before the election, AV wasn’t good enough for the Lib Dems. Well, you should get your way because it won’t happen now. The Tories are against, most of Labour are too and you won’t win a referendum. And where will the Lib Dems be then? Even Nick Clegg said there was more to the coalition than just the AV vote, but what will the Lib Dems actually have achieved? Sacrificing all their principles and policies to share government with a party of cutters.

  2. While it may be the case that that local (parish and town) council elections are confirmed to take place on 5 May 2011 I have a query regarding those that are scheduled to occur in May 2015. The Coalition Government has stated that this Parliament (& those in the future) will have a fixed term of five years. My understanding is that current legislation does not allow for a General Election to be held on the same day as local (parish and town) council elections. Accordingly, it would be useful to seek clarification regarding what will happen to local (parish and town) council elections should they coincide with a General Election following the introduction of fixed term Parliaments? Thanks.
    Kind regards,

  3. Your point about the current arrangement seems to be that there is potential for the abuse of power, allowing the PM to choose a date which best suits him / her without reference to those parties not in power. The current Government’s announcement that it is pushing through a fixed term Parliament – without reference to those parties not in power – is also an abuse of power for the same reasons.

  4. Hi Lynne, it should be four years and talking of abuses of power, do you remember who said the following in the run-up to the election?

    “My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out — you shouldn’t start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it is completely irrational.”

    Yes, that’s right, it was Nick Clegg only to admit he didn’t believe a word of what he was saying on that Nick Robinson post election programme.

    Why this big charade about ‘democracy’ when party leaders are only going to lie to get your party elected?

    Did you come into politics to tinker with a totally broken system (thanks to people like Clegg), mislead the electorate and cheer on the Tories with every new regressive anti-poor measure they come out with?

    You should change the name of your party…. The Lying Kleptocrats.

    Sorry, I shouldn’t take the mickey but the alternative to laughing is crying at what you’ve done and what you’re doing.

  5. And there should be a changeover period after an election, so that the incoming administration gets to prepare before they take over. That is what happens in the USA, where I know someone who was seconded in from his normal public sector job to help prepare the Obama team.
    Of course in the USA the incoming team gets to appoint the heads of federal govt depts, so we cannot simply copy their process. But we ought to do something, because the Coalition’s performance has been showing us how unprepared many of you were.

  6. Five years is better than four years. It works well for the European Parliament. Also, all the idiots clamouring for four years know that this will mean local elections are forever synched with national elections: it might be good for Labour, who people only really vote for in local elections when there’s also a national election – but it’s bad for democracy. But of course, Labour never cared about democracy or the country, it would destroy both out of spite and envy.

  7. @blanco

    By simply dismissing us as idiots, you make a very thoughtful and reasoned argument…. well done.

  8. I have always been in favour of fixed-term parliaments, and still am. However, it doesn’t surprise me that this has been adopted at a time when it is also highly expedient for the current coalition, which otherwise might have been seriously vulnerable to motion-of-no-confidence votes. (And politicians wonder why the public is cynical about them?)

    On that subject, I think the raising of the confidence vote threshold to 55% ( is scandalous. This is too high a bar; it effectively makes confidence votes something that a government can completely ignore. Yes, it needed to be changed to make coalitions in general a bit more stable, but I really don’t see how the 55% threshold can be defended.

    As for the 4-year vs 5-year issue, 4 years exacerbates the tendency to short-termism, as we can see from the U.S. example. I’m quite happy with 5.

  9. This Bill needs to be thrown out… or more so the coalition.

    It isn’t so much about the PM getting to choose… but taking away The Queen’s power to dissolve Parliament. This means we the people get stuck with a Government for 5 years. The coalition is heading Britain into another recession… we need to get rid of this coalition, not secure it until 2015!

    Obviously MP’s wont understand. To a similar concept they don’t quite understand about the increased student fees… better short term, but worse long term with the debt and lack of jobs… The Coalition has done zero Job Creation and there is no plans for that either. Of course, what middle class MP even has debt?

    Of course, you the MP’s get the decision for votes of no confidence… but with all due respect… 4 years for an MP is worth approx £500,000 and around £1,000,000 for cabinet members and the PM… there is no way are you going to vote against the Government to get it dissolved, this means you would lose your jobs… and realise that no one will elect most of you again. Especially if you are a Fid Dem.