Swedish-style fixed term Parliaments

The 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) established fixed quinquennial parliamentary terms, transforming the means of dissolving Parliament from a prerogative power exercised by the Prime Minister to a parliamentary process requiring two-thirds support in the Commons.

The major criticisms of the FTPA are chiefly about its shortcomings and the politics surrounding the act, namely for supporting the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, propping up the lame duck Second May Ministry, and its argued status as a dead letter due to the 2017 and 2019 elections with the latter being held by circumventing the FTPA via a simple-majority one-line bill. Such criticisms are bad faith arguments against the FTPA, merely stated ulteriorly in favour of the restoration of the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament.

One of the reasons that our party supports proportional representation for Westminster elections is that it would prevent early elections from being called for the governing party to benefit from an incumbency advantage and strong poll numbers as under First-Past-The-Post. However, this does not mean that PR should replace the FTPA entirely, an act that is not flawed in of itself but because its measures do not go far enough. If anything, complimenting PR, additional measures should be taken to strengthen the FTPA.

There may be an approach to fixed terms that has not before been considered for this country. In Sweden, quadrennial fixed term elections using part list proportional are held for the Riksdag. Sweden’s Prime Minister has the power to call an election part-way through a parliamentary term, but it would be an extra election, not an early election. Hypothetically, with the last Riksdag election being held in 2018, if an extra election were to be held now in 2021 due to the collapse of the current government, an election would still have to be held in 2022 instead of the election cycle being reset, the next election due for 2025.

Sweden’s approach to fixed terms should be pursued for several reasons. Firstly, similarly with PR, Swedish-style fixed terms would dissuade the incumbent government from calling an election part-way through a term purely for partisan advantage. It would be unlikely that such an election would be called four years into a five-year parliamentary if another had to be held a year later, especially as per the current requirement of two-thirds support in the Commons. Extra elections would thus only be held in cases of emergency.

Secondly, as FPTP discourages voter participation through vote splitting, vote wastage and tribalist behaviour, too frequent elections may also discourage it by fatiguing the electorate as is arguably the case in the UK as a result of the public votes held almost annually in the latter half of the 2010s. This would be particularly the case with that section of the electorate that is politically disengaged or disillusioned, probably due to a belief that voting does not matter, which to them might be proven by too frequent elections.

And thirdly, if parliamentary terms were to be fixed in this manner, it would be more practicable to implement term limits for both Members of Parliament and members of a hypothetical elective upper house. Under current flexible terms, limiting an MP’s tenure to three terms or fifteen years might result in it lasting as little as three years or in the requirement for them to resign part-way through a parliamentary term.

If our party believes that a Parliament should last a full five years, and that PR would be one way to achieve that, should we not also pursue reforms that would double down on it?

* Samuel James Jackson has been a grassroots member of the Liberal Democrats, affiliated with the Calderdale branch, since 2017, and is currently studying at the University of Leeds for a Master’s degree in History.

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