In praise of 5-year fixed-term parliaments

Houses of Parliament and Westminster BridgeConventional wisdom is that one area where the Lib Dem influence in Coalition has been weakest is political reform. The party’s “four step” manifesto plan to “hardwire fairness into British society” included the pledge “to clean up politics”. Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister famously promised the “biggest shake-up of our democracy” since 1832. That claim has come to seem hollow since first electoral reform, then later an elected House of Lords and the constituency boundary review, all went down in flames.

Yet one reform which was successfully introduced – fixed-term five-year parliaments – is perhaps the most far-reaching. Its impact is still under-estimated by politicians and journalists alike.

Power in the hands of Parliament not the PM

There are still some on the right who, the moment the Conservatives are within sniffing distance of a poll lead, talk up the chance of David Cameron cutting-and-running by calling a snap election. Yet the Prime Minister no longer has that sole power: instead he has to persuade two-thirds of the House of Commons to agree with him.

Yes, Mr Cameron could instruct his own MPs to fall on their swords and vote for a motion of no confidence in the Coalition government. If the no-con motion were passed, Ed Miliband would then have 14 days to put together an administration. If he succeeded (where Gordon Brown failed) he would become Prime Minister… which would torpedo Tory plans to ridicule the notion of the Labour leader as a PM-in-waiting. It’s amazing how much more plausible people become once they’re actually doing the job.

Memo to Tory/Labour MPs: You want a minority government? Seriously?

It also makes the prospect of minority government even less attractive than it was before, as Chris Huhne astutely pointed out a few months ago:

The fixed-term act introduces a further difficulty for minority governments, because the timing of an election would now be in the hands of the combined opposition majority. Any loss of a vote of confidence would trigger an election if the government could not scrabble together a majority. A minority government would constantly be at risk of an election being called at a time of the opposition’s choosing.

The opposition strategy would then be clear: let the government flounder. Deny or amend ministerial legislation. Maybe even deprive the government of money. None of this would cause it to fall, because the fixed-term act requires a specific vote of no confidence. When the administration was looking truly shambolic, you force and win a vote of no confidence, calling an election at the point of the governing party’s maximum disadvantage.

What if Ed Miliband and David Cameron begin to dislike the fixed term? What if they were jointly keen to re-establish the prime minister’s prerogative to call general elections? They could, of course, combine to do so. But why would the opposition to a minority government want to hand over control of the timing of the next general election to its principal opponent?

All of which tells me that minority governments will be less popular in future, and that coalitions are more likely to be the response to a hung parliament.

I don’t pretend fixed-term parliaments are a big doorstep-selling achievement: only political nerds like me care. (I was part of the online campaign for them to be introduced in 2008, alongside Iain Dale and OurKingdom… ah, memories!) But that doesn’t mean we should forget its significance or its likely future consequences.

Why I think 5 years is better than 4

There is still a legitimate debate to be had on the right length of a fixed-term parliament. The early assumption was they would be four-year terms; late in the day, George Osborne amended the Coalition Agreement to create five-year terms (perhaps anticipating the length of time it would take for the economic recovery to kick in).

Personally I quite like five-year terms. It reduces the temptation of government ministers to resort to “initiative-itis” as they know there’s a fair chance they will actually have to live with the consequences of their reforms and be responsible for their successful implementation (or not). Yesterday’s quiet Queen’s Speech wasn’t just a reflection of a Coalition Government that’s run out of reforming steam, it was also a recognition that legislating for change doesn’t necessarily make it so.

It isn’t just five-year parliaments which has created stability, though: it’s Coalition Government itself. Almost half the Cabinet (14 of the 29 ministers eligible to attend) has remained the same throughout the first four years of this Parliament. Perhaps that’s down to the quality of those in post. But, to be honest, it’s just as likely to be because reshuffles in Coalitions are tricky affairs.

The usual pattern, pre-fixed-term parliaments, would have been for cabinet ministers to have two years in post; then a mid-term ‘scapegoat’ reshuffle; followed by another two years in a different post leading up to an election. It’s a recipe for poor government. I’m not saying that having the same ministers in post for 4-5 years guarantees good government, by the way (the names of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove spring to mind). But at least there’s clear accountability: it’s hard to blame your predecessor for the failure of your policies if you’ve had a whole parliament to get it right.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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32 Comments

  • Frank Booth 5th Jun '14 - 4:34pm

    Not sure fixed term parliaments are that great an idea actually. If we’re going to have them I think 5 years is too long though. 4 would be better.

    The other difficulty I see is a situation where one party is in the ascendent (say in 2001) and yet they have to wait another year for an election. Better to have the election after 4 years than have a year faffing around.

  • paul barker 5th Jun '14 - 4:58pm

    Of course most Voters are not aware of the change but I wonder if their behaviour may have changed anyway. 5 Years ago there was a constant backdrop of stories about when The Election would be called, seeping into Voters minds & making them begin to think about how they would vote. Thats been replaced by Media silence & I wonder if Voters are thus thinking less about the Election.
    One side-effect of Fixed Terms could be to extend The “Mid-Term” right up to the last few weeks, followed by a sudden shift of opinion & Polling, at the last moment.

  • A vote of no-confidence in the government is only one of the two ways an early election can be brought about. Section 2 of the act also stipulates that parliament can simply pass, by a two-thirds majority, a resolution “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election”. No opposition could credibly vote against such a resolution. So although it might prove tricky politically (he would need a better excuse than “cos I’m ahead in the polls”) Cameron does retain a de facto power to call an early election. Few people, even political nerds, seem to have realised this.

    Setting the term to 5 years rather than the 4 which would have been more in keeping with historical norms
    was one of the early signs that the Coalition was going to be liberal more in word than deed. A reluctance to face the
    electorate is not an admirable quality in a politician.

  • “Yes, Mr Cameron could instruct his own MPs to fall on their swords and vote for a motion of no confidence in the Coalition government. If the no-con motion were passed, Ed Miliband would then have 14 days to put together an administration. If he succeeded (where Gordon Brown failed) he would become Prime Minister… “

    That’s true in a hung parliament, but when the largest party has a majority it can obviously vote down any alternative government. It can also repeal or amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act itself, though that could be delayed by the Lords.

    I’m not convinced this legislation would really prevent a prime minister with a majority in the Commons from calling an early election.

  • Matt (Bristol) 5th Jun '14 - 5:02pm

    In my own little world governed by me (it’s nice here), I can’t entirely see why they didn’t split the difference and go for 4 years 6 months (which is probably the average length of parliaments since the war, at a guess) and alternate GEs between, say, early April and late October. Just because Blair had a good time in early May and Labour got addicted to it as a symbolic date doesn’t leave us beholden to have elections in May for ever after.

    5 years does now seem rather long to be coping with the Parliament of 2010. But who knows how more or less unruly and unsteady the Parliament of 2015 may be?

  • I’d put money on the next majority government repealing the Act in its 1st session.

  • michael ross 5th Jun '14 - 5:16pm

    I am a retired blue collar worker abandoned by the labour party . I have not voted in only two council elections and have always thought it important to use your vote ,but I have nowhere to go unless your party shows some guts fight for constitutional reform. Please also consider reforms that help people in there everyday policies that cost the government very little .strengthen consumer laws against cowboy builders, traders . Please try to find policies that help people and the people will understand and appreciate your efforts thank you

  • I find myself agreeing with Stephen Tall and Paul Walter ( but I have agreed with Simon McGrath twice this week so maybe it is the medication I am on).
    The principle of fixed term parliaments being right is beyond dispute. The old system of the PM deciding was just one of the many anti-democratic hangovers from monarchy that successive governments fail to remove.

    Stehen Tall over-eggs his pudding to claim that it was the most important of constitutional changes. That is nonsense.

    It is useful and timely to be reminded by Stephen that Clegg used to regularly boast about how as Deputy Prime Minister he personally would bring in —
    “…….the “biggest shake-up of our democracy” since 1832. ………. electoral reform, an elected House of Lords and the constituency boundary review, power of recall, etc etc ”

    As Stephen says an astonishingly hollow boast that “all went down in flames.”. Those that want to cling on to Clegg resort to voluntary amnesia when these things are mentioned. It was by far his biggest personal failing.
    There is no better evidence of his lack of competence and lack of humility.

    If you are a fan of coalition government per se, you must wonder what you have done to offend the gods to have been cursed with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister.
    A man who cannot work effectively with his own party, let alone another.
    Clegg is a man more unpopular than Gordon Brown was in 2010 when Clegg himself said that a coalition could not involve Brown because Brown was condemned by the British people !!!
    At the time Olly Grender joked on TV that like king Midas in reverse, everything Prime Minister Gordon touched “turned to Brown”.
    I am guessing that Olly will not be revisiting that joke any time soon.

  • I personally think that four year terms are wiser, as local elections and devolved assembly elections are also every four years. It prevents the faffing around of having to move certain elections to not conflict with others (if Scotland votes no, they’ll have their council elections in 2017, as they have to be the year after the Holyrood elections in 2016, which has to be the year after the 2015 general elections).

    Ideally, we should be pushing for a system where, say we get Commons and half the Upper House elections one year, devolved assemblies the next, district councils and the other half of the Upper House after, and finally county and parish councils. All by the single transferrable vote, of course (and we’ll probably be able to get STV for councils in the next coalition).

    (I’d personally go farther and try to re-arrange the political calendar so that Budget Day is not long after the State Opening; it’s pretty pointless to do a pre-election Budget if the Opposition is going to do a post-election Emergency Budget; that would require either moving elections to before the start of the financial year, or having the Budget take effect mostly for the next FY).

    And to be fair to Clegg, the failure of Lords reform wasn’t due to Clegg’s incompetence, it was due to Cameron’s incompetence to command his party and Miliband’s lack of democratic principles. That we were able to get it into the Coalition Agreement at all was an accomplishment.

  • Leekliberal 5th Jun '14 - 6:59pm

    @Frank Booth says ‘Better to have the election after 4 years than have a year faffing around’. In the 19th century Parliaments lasted 7 years. My question is how long does it take for the actions of Governments to to have a demonstrable effect that the electorate can properly make a judgement on? My view is that 5 years is a absolute minimum, so on this one I think you are wrong and Stephen is right.

  • Christopher 5th Jun '14 - 7:05pm

    AndrewR:

    “An early parliamentary general election is to take place if … (b)if the motion is passed on a division, the number of members who vote in favour of the motion is a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats).”

    434 MPs would need to vote in favour of the motion, and there are only 303 Conservative MPs. The opposition doesn’t need to vote against, It could decide not to show up.

  • Leekliberal 5th Jun '14 - 7:30pm

    @Caracatus
    ‘http://www.zacgoldsmith.com/desperate-backtracking-over-recall-by-nick-clegg says it all really about Nick’
    What has this to do with the subject of fixed-term Parliaments? Do try and stick to the subject being discussed!

  • Richard Dean 5th Jun '14 - 7:41pm

    Wow, 5 versus 4, this’ll really get voters excited!

  • Fixed term parliaments are a good idea, but I never understood why the coalition fixed it a five years when the norm in Britain is four years.

  • Christopher
    An opposition that ducked the chance to have a GE would be crucified by the press and look extremely foolish to the electorate. Remember Gordon Brown’s ‘Election that News Was’? His reputation nosedived after that fiasco and never really recovered. Politicians are obliged to pretend there is nothing they would like more than an election even, or perhaps especially, when the opposite is the case.

    I do support 4-year fixed parliaments. I’m glad the power of the PM to call an election has been diminished but I think it is wrong to think it has been entirely eliminated. The scenario Stephen Tall outlines whereby Cameron installs Miliband as PM of a minority government is not the only possibility open to him. If he decided under the provisions of the Act to put a resolution to the house to bring forward the election Miliband would have no alternative but to vote for it. I don’t believe that will happen. It is still very likely that the date of the next GE will be May 2015 , not least because I don’t think the Tories polling will recover beyond the 36% or so they got last time. However it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some political row or crisis, real or manufactured, could lead us to the polls sooner than anyone is imagining.

  • “An opposition that ducked the chance to have a GE would be crucified by the press …”

    I doubt that – if the opposition was Conservative, and its supporters in the press reckoned it would stand a better chance if the election were delayed!

  • I always wondered how other countries managed without their head of government not having the power to call an election when they felt it was to their advantage.

  • Christopher 6th Jun '14 - 1:40am

    AndrewH

    My intention was just to point out that your claim “No opposition could credibly vote against such a resolution” isn’t the exact issue.

    But I would say that the lesson of “the Election that Never Was” is that leaders are willing to give the impression that they’re afraid of an election, if in fact they’re afraid of an election. If you read the book “Brown at 10,” it’s clear that Brown’s inner circle was well aware that they would look like fools, but decided that the polling was simply too bad for Labour to call an election.

    Can you provide a counterexample of a leader calling an early election knowing that he or she would lose, in the interests of looking “tough”?

  • Peter Chegwyn 6th Jun '14 - 5:26am

    Given the Newark result it’s probably just as well Cameron can’t call an early General Election!

  • 2.6%

    Wow.

    Have any of the Cleggites reached an epiphany? Doubt it.

  • I don’t believe the fixed term parliament legislation will survive the next parliament. Both Labour and Tories would prefer it gone and so they’ll ditch as soon as we return to the normal service of majority government.

  • David Ellams 6th Jun '14 - 9:55am

    I agree wholeheartedly that five-year parliaments are better than four. In fact, I might go out on a limb and tentatively suggest six years would be ideal. Good governance is my concern.

    In a four-year term following a change of government, the first year is spent finding their feet, at least the last year is an extended election campaign, leaving only two years of actual government. I think three years of actual government has to be preferable.

    One of the major causes of poor governance in our system, regardless of the parties involved, is governments being in too much of a rush to push through major reforms. Who can blame them? If they genuinely believe the change will have a positive effect, they want to see that effect in time for the election. And two years is simply not long enough for a major reform to be implemented sensibly. So we end up with poor legislation bulldozed through, ignoring legitimate concerns which could have been addressed, given time. Once the legislation is passed, we then have a token pilot at best, with no time to make significant changes or re-pilot if major issues arise.

    Obviously there has to be a balance between good governance and democratic accountability, and we will disagree one where that balance lies. For me, though, it probably lies around the six-year mark (especially if there is a right of recall).

  • Matt (Bristol) 6th Jun '14 - 1:33pm

    @Sarah Noble; ‘that we were able to get it [Lords’ Reform} into the Coalition Agreement at all was an achievement’

    What, with all three parties in theory in favour of it?

    The issues wasn’t whether Lords Reform should happen, the issue was what form of it should happen.

    Where the government (both Tory and LibDem ministers) failed was in securing a workable compromise that satisfied all.

    Therefore I don’t agree that we should be at all happy that a commitment was made to carry out something that then did not happen.

    The current state of affairs is best described as ‘not looking at the problem and hoping it will go away’.

  • Steve Comer 6th Jun '14 - 2:34pm

    A 4-year fixed term would fit more easily with other other elections (local, devolved assemblies/parliament, mayors etc).
    The danger with 5 year terms is too much can coincide at once, so in Bristol for example 2020 will see a General, Mayoral, and all-up Council election all on the same day!

  • Passing through 6th Jun '14 - 4:50pm

    The problem with fixed-term parliaments in there current form is you can end up in a situation where you have a minority government incapable of passing any legislation but a fragmented opposition can’t organise themselves together for a vote of no confidence so instead we stumble along with no effective government and no way of prematurely-ending the Parliament to allow the electorate a say at a GE to sort the mess out. This would be politically and economically catastrophic and this from a party which claims the rapid formation of a viable Coalition is the only thing that stopped us turning into Greece in 2010.

    You might say the above scenario is unlikely but it is exactly what would happen if the Coalition irreparably fell apart tomorrow as there is no way either the LDs or Conservatives would vote for an early election right now but also no way the Conservatives or Labour could rule effectively as a minority government for the remaining 11 months.

    This last year of the Parliament is already looking quite threadbare, which has more to do with postponing any reckoning with the electorate in the hope the economy improves sufficiently rather than any significant legislative agenda , the Fixed-Term Parliament threatens turning a lame-duck administration into a zombie one.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Jun '14 - 7:14am

    @Carl Gardner:

    ” I can’t think of an example of a PM asking for a dissolution on abusively partisan grounds.”

    Then you have a strange view of partisanship. Other than when the PM concerned was forced into a corner, I can’t think of ANY dissolutions which weren’t asked for (or, in Gordon Brown’s case, avoided) on highly- partisan grounds.

  • Matt (Bristol) 9th Jun '14 - 11:57am

    Carl, I think it has been assumed for many years that Thatcher’s decision to go to the polls in 1983 was a deliberately partisan decision to catch Labour and the nascent Alliance parties on the hop just after the Falklands, up to that point she had been struggling.

    I get that the FTPA puts power in the hands of parliament rather than the voters if we are talking about a decision to dissolve, but does it takes some power away from the PM as a sole individual, compared to the preiovus arrangement.

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