Opinion: Why not limit MPs to four terms in Parliament?

 

I was thinking recently about how to increase opportunity and impact in UK politics for people, in a popular way. I came to an idea which I thought was worth floating, not because of its originality, but because of its obviousness: why not limit Westminster terms for MPs?

Given Fixed Term Parliaments, this seems the time to propose reform to related rules and limitations. After all, in a given 20 year period, we can now expect an average of four parliaments rather than five, with the decreased turnover in MPs that suggests. The current average of service is about 10 years. The record was 63 years – held by Winston Churchill. I estimate about 15% of current MPs would be excluded by the measure. There certainly exists precedent in term limits for democratic officials – the US Presidency, for one.

I should mention some things that have helped stoke this view. Firstly, I believe it is liberal, and would increase political engagement. Secondly, I believe it could obtain considerable voter (and cross-party) reformist support. Thirdly, it is simple to implement and enforce. Fourthly, it is not off-puttingly radical, having international democratic precedent. Lastly it would decrease corruption and careerism, if only (in the worst case) by time-limiting it.

Let us say that we capped an elected MP’s right to sit in Westminster at four full parliamentary terms. This is an arbitrary cap, but seems reasonable. This ‘fixed term cap’ would not be transferrable to other constituencies, of course. Outside that, MPs would still be elected and fight for re-election in the same way. If a Parliament was dissolved, for whatever reason, and another General Election called, that would still count as a parliamentary ‘life’ for those MPs serving in it.

This reform would also cover parliamentarians who had a ‘Westminster gap’ in their CVs, and would count as a ‘full Parliament’ one from which the MP had voluntarily bowed-out. Let’s pretend this reform actually was enacted, effective from the year 2000. David Cameron would now be about to complete his third term as an MP, having risen to become leader of his party in his second. Would this become the typical trajectory? I don’t know. (Nick Clegg, of course, would still have two full parliamentary terms in him – as would Ed Miliband!) In their fourth term, every MP, even Cabinet Ministers, would effectively become a principled backbencher, if only for their last stint.

I will leave it to readers of this article to suggest weaknesses (or benefits) that I haven’t raised, concerning principle or operation. I myself will raise just one, which came up in discussion: the risk of less chance for older voices to be heard in Westminster. Let’s say an MP is elected at the age of 30. He is put out to career pasture at 50. Fair? Yes, I would say. Besides, what’s to stop him running initially at 40, 50, 60, or 70? If there is general age bias against electing older first-time MPs, then that is a wider problem. Retiring MPs would still be eligible for assemblies, council elections, Mayoral ambitions, and appointments to the House of Lords, as usual. Personally, I would also limit Lords’ appointments to a single 10-Year term, but that’s another (although connected) debate!

Here, I propose, is a liberal reform that would be popular, easy to explain, and that would get a wider spectrum of people onto the green benches.

* David Faggiani is a young-ish Liberal living in London, ex-smoker and co-founder of 'Game of Seats' political discussion group on Facebook and Twitter.

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38 Comments

  • matt (Bristol) 7th Jan '15 - 3:49pm

    It’s interesting to speculate how this would interact with an elected second chamber and with regional assemblies; I can see a lot of ping-ponging between elected roles much as has happened with Alec Salmond and Jim Murphy (well, attempted).

    And I don’t see how you allow for redrawing of boundaries with your proviso that it only applies to restanding in one constituency.

    If we decided we had to do it, I’d rather have 6 terms or 30 years.

    There would however, be a risk of loss of experience and possibly of independence – often the backbench ‘characters’ who’ve been around the block (ie Ken Clarke, Denis Skinner) are the ones prepared to speak truth to power.

    There would be a dangerous risk of strengthening the hand of machine politics and simply increasing the ‘lobby-fodder’ tendency without more parallel reforms to reduce the patronage powers of the PM.

    On the whole, I wouldn’t do it.

  • Edward Reach 7th Jan '15 - 3:56pm

    Potentially worth exploring and could have some of the benefits you’ve outlined. Also a strong case for applying term limits for local Cllrs as well?

  • stuart moran 7th Jan '15 - 4:04pm

    fiddling whilst Rome burns…..

    I don’t see the problem with the HoC being MPSswho have been there too long. I see it in ‘rotten boroughs’, undermining of politics and political standards in general, an unelected feudal second chamber, cumbersome registration processes, falling turnout, lack of engagement from the young, wasted votes, lack of accountability real difference etc etc

    These should be the areas of focus not something that I feel will make no real difference

  • David Faggiani 7th Jan '15 - 4:07pm

    matt (Bristol) – Ah, on re-reading I think I’ve put my point slightly clumsily in the article! What I meant to propose is that MPs would only be able to stand for 4 Westminster terms in ANY constituency, 4 terms total. In other words, they would NOT be able to stand for 4 terms in one constituency and then for several more terms elsewhere. My bad for sloppy prose!
    I think 6 terms, or 30 years, would have too little impact on clearing spaces for newcomers. In terms of experience and independence for older MPs, I see Final Term MPs in this system automatically having some of that, by dint of not campaigning for re-election (at least to Westminster) and having 15 years Parliamentary experience (and who knows how much outside?) And, for the record, I don’t personally believe in an elected Second Chamber, I am fine with the existing Lords being reformed and streamlined!

    Edward Reach – yes, for councillors, Mayors, etc, that would be great.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jan '15 - 4:10pm

    The answer to the question is “Because people should be free to vote for whoever they like”.

  • Robin McGhee 7th Jan '15 - 4:17pm

    Yes, it’s interesting this idea has never been meaningfully discussed in recent British history. It’s common in America and other countries.

    I’d certainly support it though I think four terms is too many- two or three is much better.

  • stuart moran 7th Jan '15 - 4:28pm

    Robin McGhee

    For the US President – don’t think it is the case for congress and senate. Robert Byrd was a senator for over 50 years!

    Why do you think it makes an appreciable difference?

    Your idea of two terms is frankly ridiculous as we would have PM and cabinets without any experience – a tendency that we tend to overlook in the media age!

    I also agree with Matthew’s point – what right has the state got to say who an individual person can vote for just based on time in office?

  • David Faggiani 7th Jan '15 - 4:32pm

    stuart moran – OK, I see many of those things as problems too, although I think my idea would help assuage at least a few of them (political standards, lack of engagement from the young). But if you feel it’s not a priority, or just wouldn’t help, fair play.

    Matthew Huntbach – aha, good , liberal point! Do you then, for instance, think that the US system should, ideally, be amended so that Obama should be able to run again for President? I don’t think I agree.

    Robin McGhee – Well, four is certainly arbitrary on my part, based more on my own idea of an ‘ideal’ maximum length of service in any job, I fear! I would be very interested to hear from those who has willingly stepped down before then (e.g. Jeremy Browne) or those who have stayed in the job, and been successful thus far (e.g. Simon Hughes). I bet they’d both have opinions on the subject!
    In terms of relatively recent discussion, I’ve found this from February 2009, where the idea was put forward in terms of increasing Female/BAME candidate uptake. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/feb/23/mps-divesity-women-parliament

  • I have some sympathy for the reasons by this idea, but I’ll take just one of our MPs as an example of why I don’t think it would be fair. Assuming Jo Swinson is re-elected in May, she will enter her third term as an MP at the age of just 35. Are we really saying we’d want to lose her undoubted talent so soon. I think having MPs with a broad range of ages and years of service is beneficial for parliament, and it’s a shame that MPs these days seem to have to either get promoted quickly or accept they’ve missed their chance.

  • stuart moran 7th Jan '15 - 4:43pm

    David

    How would limiting the number of terms help in the way you suggested…surely better political standards is better maintained by applying the standards and allowing the right to recall.. I think any party who has David Laws in their leadership is also on shaky ground making a lot of noise about standards!

    Tony Benn was very popular with the young (look at his sell out tours) so I think you are being incredibly ageist! Do young people look at older people with experience as being beyond the pale? I feel it is more what they say and how they engage

    Please tell me why you think it would be a help? I cannot get it from your post?

    As to your question to Matthew – if Obama stands again and the people vote for him then what is the problem? You can say that you end up with a quasi-dictatorship but that could only happen if you have very weak democratic controls (possibly true in the states)

    If you look at the US though as a dynastic situations we will probably have

    Bush – Clinton – Clinton – Bush – Bush – Obama – Obama -Clinton/Bush

    And you think another term of Obama would be a problem? Also there is the issue in the US of a ‘lame duck’ president very soon after re-election so the US really only has 1 and bit term presidencies

    I think in both the UK and US limiting time in office is the least of the problems we have with our democracy at the moment

  • Matthew Huntbach makes a simple point. The real problem is that constituencies in the UK where a sitting MP could be the proverbial blue/red wall and virtually immoveable Evidently the fault lies elsewhere.

    Now that Lords reform has been lost, there is an urgent need to reform our policy. Long tenancies whose records in the chamber are never put before the electorate is not the answer.

    I believe that the dropped proposals were to recreate a chamber that was as similar to the unelected chamber that we have today as could be possible, given that there had to be a nod towards the principle of democratic representation.

    We need to be arguing for shorter renewable terms, perhaps on a two yearly rolling cycle (with representatives elected for 6 or 4 years. Personally I would support the inclusion of non voting, specialist appointees who could speak and take part in committees on matters relating to thier specialisms (this could possibly also take care of the bishops as well).

  • David Faggiani 7th Jan '15 - 5:05pm

    Hi stuart moran-

    Yep, I’m also in favour of effective right to recall.

    Euughhhh. OK, I’m being incredibly ageist. You’ve rumbled me. Although….. (to quote myself)

    “Besides, what’s to stop him running initially at 40, 50, 60, or 70?”

    By my count a very charismatic, popular MP in that last scenario could then serve until he or she was 90. With my blessings, as if they’d need it. By all means, accuse me of being naïve, or not seeing dangers to older people in my thinking, but deliberately ageist? but let’s not throw ‘isms’ around to start with, shall we? I’ll refrain if you will!

    Anders – I hear nothing but good things about Jo Swinson, but, yes, essentially I’m arguing we could take that hit, for larger gain. I think 20 years is long enough for anyone to have a fair crack at it, essentially. She would, of course, then be free to run for any other type of elected office in the country! Or to get a non-elected job, obviously 🙂

    And I think it would be a help because it would allow a greater number of people to help run the country, increasing parliamentary diversity (and constituency representation, given rapidly changing demographics) and promoting freshness of thinking. For Final Term MPs, it would also help loosen Party strictures and encourage free-thinking. That’s my position, for discussion.

  • stuart moran 7th Jan '15 - 5:15pm

    David

    The ageism was based on the view that removing MPs after 20 years will improve engagement with the young – I was pointing out that this is a completely baseless supposition. Do you have any evidence for why it would help. I gave Benn as a counter-example

    Also, do you really think, based on current favouring of the young, that we will see many old entrants to the HoC? Really?

    The 3 party leaders are all fairly new entrants – only one was in parliament for the Iraq vote! Do you think their lack of competence and credibility may be linked to the fact that they are so inexperienced?

    The tendency for all parties is to use young professional politicians rather than more experienced ones and I cannot see this changing at all

    It is an idea plucked from the air, fair enough to air it for discussion but really there are more important constitutional reforms than this – do you see this as a priority?

  • If you thought that MPs were unenthusiastic about any change in the way that they were elected, imagine the lack of enthusiasm for limitations on the length of their tenure. In other words, this will not happen.

  • Martin Crosby 7th Jan '15 - 5:42pm

    As others have pointed out the term limits in the US apply to executives (the President, but also many Governorships) rather than the legislature. In fact, being in Congress for a long time, “seniority”, was historically a key factor of how you gained power in both houses of the US Congress. However, it’s worth mentioning some US candidates impose term limits on themselves in Congress… something I’ve not really heard as part of campaigning in this country.

    I’d welcome the elected executives in this country- City Mayors and PCCs- having term limits for the same reason they have them in the US (corruption, dispersal of power) but higher up on my list of things to take from the US would be: real checks and balances in Parliament, having a decent electoral system for the legislature (PR is better than primaries but primaries are better than what we have), a democratically accountable upper chamber, federalism and a direct election for the Executive.

    We won’t get any of these things any time soon though because that would involve Parliament giving up power… The same Parliamentarians who in the last 3 months have managed to twist the legitimate desire for England and its regions to have a clearer say in English affairs into… English MPs should get to be both MPs for the whole of the UK and the equivalent of English MSPs.

  • stuart moran 7th Jan '15 - 5:56pm

    Martin Crosby

    I fundamentally disagree with your final paragraph

    I think there should be regional devolution in the UK but who are you to tell me that UK English MPs should have dual role, especially when elected on FPTP?

    All the devolved governments have a proportional system – would you deny the English that

    I find out use of the word ‘twist’ unnecessary when there are legitimate claims

    You have no mandate for what you propose so I suggest you show a bit more humility!

    Again another example of the LD rolling over when a half-cocked Tory idea is on the table

    At least Labour asked the people what they wanted and for their approval before doing something

  • Christine Headley 7th Jan '15 - 6:43pm

    @Stuart Moran
    If this is ‘fiddling whilst Rome burns’, why waste your time reading it, and then adding so much length to the thread? I don’t see any reason for having such a go at Martin Crosby either, as – although he is clearly a party member – I don’t know why his ideas should be perceived as having any more clout that anyone else’s.
    I can see no justification for your last two comments, as this is not a full blown proposal, but might prove to be the first instalment in the sort of consultation you presumably approve of.

  • Martin Crosby 7th Jan '15 - 6:57pm

    Hi Stuart, I think you’ve misread my final paragraph… and if I understand what you disagree with correctly, I think you are disagreeing with the same thing I am. Even to the extent we both used the word ‘legitimate’… and we both want a proportional electoral system for Parliament… and we both want regional devolution… and we both think “English Votes for English Laws” is a Parliamentarian stitch up.

    Not sure where I stand on ‘humility’ on internet discussions about constitutional affairs though, I guess I’ll wait for a Tory to tell me.

  • stuart moran 7th Jan '15 - 7:16pm

    Christine Headley

    I believe I am entitled to comment on whatever thread I want to thank you and I would like to understand why this is considered to be a good idea and priority when there are so many things within the constitutional area to focus on that have not yet been delivered

    If someone puts up an article then are we supposed just to nod sagely and go -‘what a good idea’ – if people don’t want their ideas to be challenged then why post it as an article?

    Martin Crosby

    I apologise for my impolite response (have a cold today)

    Your final sentence ‘English MPs should get to be both MPs for the whole of the UK and the equivalent of English MSPs.’ seemed to support the Tory view that there is no need for a review of the system, rather use of FPTP elected English MPs instead of proper devolution. Reading it after I read your post makes it clearer. I thought they were two distinct clauses

    I withdraw my comments and agree that we are probably on the same side of the argument – hope you accept my apology

  • Martin Crosby 7th Jan '15 - 7:29pm

    Stuart, no problem, not the first time someone has misread something as a result of me having miswritten it! Looking back I left that last line a little unclear

  • David Allen 7th Jan '15 - 7:46pm

    As Matthew said, people should be free to choose their own representatives. Some politicians would like a degraded democracy. One good way to achieve that would be to start with a seemingly innocuous proposal to breach the wall, and then find excuses to put further restrictions into place (nobody with a criminal record, then nobody with an MI5 surveillance record, etc).

    Also – Government should be professional. Yes, we want more people who have had careers outside politics, but we also need people who have the wisdom borne of experience of a Ken Clarke, Simon Hughes, or indeed Gordon Brown. Four terms, as a novice MP initially of course, is still not really enough time to accumulate that experience.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jan '15 - 7:55pm

    Martin

    Matthew Huntbach makes a simple point. The real problem is that constituencies in the UK where a sitting MP could be the proverbial blue/red wall and virtually immoveable

    Yes, that is why we need at least AV. That would mean a tired and complacent MP who sticks on forever in a safe seat could be challenged by an independent who agrees with his general political line, but feels he personally should be changed.

    Obviously we should also have political parties which aren’t top down, so that if members of the party in a constituency don’t like the MP of that party, they can choose a different candidate another time without that being considered a dreadful thing to do. Same, of course, applies to any other party office – we are “Democrats”, so we should think it natural that the members are the boss and can change those in that office if they want to, without that being considered shocking.

  • nvelope2003 7th Jan '15 - 8:45pm

    Would it have been possible for Winston Churchill to have been an MP in 1940 and therefore Prime Minister if he had been limited to 4 terms ? We would have missed out on something perhaps ? The US would not have had Roosevelt if the 2 term rule had been in force in 1940. Theses limits are not a good idea. It should be for the voters to decide.

  • The problem, as I understand it, is not that MPs hold their seats for too long, but that most of them are not adequately responsive to the needs of their constituencies or of the country as a whole. This is not surprising; they are no doubt distracted by many other things.
    Curtailing the length of time MPs can serve does not solve that. It does, indeed, mean that periodically MPs would have to face electors without the advantage of incumbency. But that would not necessarily make them more solicitous to attend to the needs of the voters; it might simply make them more the slaves of party organisation, press, and contributors.
    What might be more advantageous are more frequent elections, so that the parties pay more attention to the national mood at times other than the last few months before elections. That doesn’t mean that we need general elections every six months. One might, instead, do away with the general election altogether, and elect, say, a quarter or a fifth of the Parliament every year. Thus each MP has some security, but each party has to answer for its policies each year, or risk losing power.
    If the parties now in and out of power had had to send a fifth of their MPs to face the electorate in May 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, we would not have seen this curious paralysis which now affects, at least, the Liberal Democrats: certain choices would have had to be made, which might have either seen the Party back in opposition, or perhaps part of a strengthened (or a different) coalition, but which at any rate would not have involved doing the same thing, year after year, despite the catastrophic consequences, with the prospects of a new strategy always put off in the hopes that something would turn up. Events would have forced the hand of the leadership, before it was too late to turn back.

  • Roger Billins 8th Jan '15 - 9:32am

    If this proposal had been implemented in the past, Winston Churchill would not have been an M.P. at the outbreak of WW2 and we would have lost the services of Gladstone, Asquith and Llord George ! In more modern times, people like Roy Jenkins would have been disqualified. A thoroughly bad idea. The real problem of bad M.P’s can be dealt with by the power of recall and of course the introduction of a proper electoral system.

  • Robin McGhee 8th Jan '15 - 10:07am

    Stuart Moran – it’s extremely common in state legislatures and measures to introduce it for the Congress have been passed by majorities within the past 20 years. I agree two or three terms is radical, but it would help encourage presidents and prime ministers to get more experience elsewhere first and ensure turnover. Examples of people who became head of government within less than ten years of election to the national legislature include, er, Barack Obama and David Cameron. Our own leader had only served one term before he became deputy PM.

  • David Faggiani 8th Jan '15 - 10:24am

    I have had replies on Twitter from Jeremy Browne MP and Jo Swinson MP already, both of whom essentially disagree with my suggestion, Browne saying “I’m against term limits. Voters should decide instead. And if anything H of C needs more institutional maturity and experience”, which is certainly something stated by many above.

    I quite like the idea of staggered ‘half-Generals’ that David-1 suggests above, a bit like the Senatorial elections in the US, or, I suppose, most of our Local elections.

    For the people who think, very defensibly and honourably, that voters should be able to vote for whoever they like, free of impediments, I would just suggest that perhaps the State should have a role in politely saying “come on now, you’ve had your turn, let someone else have a shot”. I think that candidate re-selection in the Party system is too staid, with too little turnover. I agree with many on the thread that wider publicized Primaries are another good way forward though.

    To some people above using historical MPs that they admire as counterexamples (Churchill, Jenkins, Benn, etc.) well, OK. But I have two arguments on that: 1) Using existing historical biographies, and their theoretical excision, as counter-arguments against proposed reforms is pretty weak stuff (although fascinating as a topic), and 2) In my proposal, there’s nothing against MPs who serve a term or two in their 30s, say, gaining experience and admiration from peers and voters, and then decide to return to Parliament in their 60s, for their third and fourth terms. This is just one example of a counter career track.

    Remember, my point was just that MORE people will pass through Parliament this way, not YOUNGER people, or necessarily even BETTER people, although I think it would have that potential.

    Finally, Stuart Moran, I myself admired Tony Benn, I saw him speak on the Iraq War when I was 19 (I am now 29). To answer your question, I believe that this reform would improve engagement with the young because they would have more choice of candidates, more frequently. As to whether ‘the young’ would then tend to pick, or vote for, younger candidates than the average elector, I have no idea. I hope I have shown above that I am not trying to lower the average age of MPs in the HoC, to further some ageist agenda.

    Sorry for the long reply post!

  • Malcolm Todd 8th Jan '15 - 10:39am

    Robin McGhee
    “Examples of people who became head of government within less than ten years of election to the national legislature include, er, Barack Obama and David Cameron. Our own leader had only served one term before he became deputy PM.”

    And how do you think any of these leaders have stacked up, performance-wise, in comparison with predecessors with longer experience? Say, LBJ, Thatcher and Charles Kennedy, respectively?

  • David Evershed 8th Jan '15 - 5:42pm

    We are a liberal party.

    Don’t restrict people standing for parliament – let the voters decide.

  • Why not limit them to four terms? Because their constituents like them, they have a lot of experience to enable them to do their role well and because they have very little real power anyway?

    If you want to use term limits to oppose real power why not limit the Prime Minister to 1 term?

  • SIMON BANKS 8th Jan '15 - 9:01pm

    There is a very simple answer to the question: because it’s undemocratic. It would result in some very popular MPs being forced to step down against the wishes of the people they represented. It would restrict people’s choice of MPs. If people don’t want a four-term MP to continue, they can vote her/him out, either through deselection within the local party or through the ballot box. STV of course would make this easier, since you could vote for a bright young Lib Dem candidate ahead of Charles Kennedy or Vince Cable.

    Oh, and that’s another argument against. The highly successful minister for whatever is about to confront his/her biggest ministerial challenge, but can’t because (s)he can’t be re-elected an MP.

  • Richard Fox 21st Aug '19 - 7:15pm

    This is becoming a real hot topic in the states. I think some of us should put this to conference.

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