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Fixed Term Parliament: Panacea or Straitjacket?

UK Prime Ministers Call General Elections at Best-Chance Times

Obama Knows When Election Is Coming -

At any time, the Prime Minister of the day can ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament for an election, unless a government’s five years are up. Then there’s no choice left.

All Parliaments end on the fifth year, unless a Prime Minister decides he/she wants to go to the country earlier, because the chances of winning are higher. This might be because of some perceived success (eg. war or conflict, massive reduction in taxes and cost of living), or some bad news is coming (eg, economic wipe-out and fiscal collapse).

Vote of Confidence in the House of Commons

An election would come ahead of time and very speedily if a Government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, or had too small a majority or lost it’s majority through deaths and defections. Of course, an election may still not produce an outright winner, in which case we would face a hung Parliament till a new election became inevitable.

In the USA, Presidential elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every fourth year. The fact that campaigns start the moment the last one is over, doesn’t alter the fact that American voters know when they can next vote for a President. If he/she dies in office, the Vice President takes over. Failing that, the Speaker of the Senate takes over.

First Past the Post System

Whatever happens, there is never a Presidential election midterm. Equally with Congress and the Senate, it’s fixed terms all round. Their system appears to be more complex than ours, but to others, our first-past-the-post tradition is outdated and doesn’t serve us best. It takes more votes to elect a Conservative MP than a Labour or Lib-Dem one because of inequality of Parliamentary boundaries and sizes of electorates.

In the European Parliament (every five years by law) and in our own local authorities – everybody knows when elections will fall, and there is certainty. Some councils elect by thirds every year to ensure some continuity of power. Only Westminster in our system has no fixed date for the next election.

If a government has a large, working majority, then everybody knows it will run between four to five years. It’s when it has a small majority over other parties in the House of Commons and a government cannot get all its legislation through, that the Prime Minister may be forced to go early to break a deadlock and give the country some stability of governance. We had two elections for that reason in 1974 – February and October.

Prime Minister’s Electoral Advantage

The campaign against that prerogative argues that no Prime Minister should have the unfair advantage of choosing a date. It is in the interest of planning public services, finances, education, healthcare and defence if we all know when it is coming. This is the panacea solution to politics – that fixing the length of every Parliament, all problems will be solved.

The alternative view – the straitjacket argument – is for the same reasons of planning public services, education, healthcare and defence, a lame-duck government should be ended, but as rapidly as possibly, and certainly well before the full five years is up. Therefore, no Prime Minister should be constrained to cling onto office for five years if circumstances no longer favour it.

In the meantime, we manage with the time-hallowed system we have. If the next government enjoys a large majority, the issue will go to sleep for a time. If it doesn’t, fixed terms will be a live issue again, while we brace ourselves for another election. Soon.

First published on Suite 101, 13 March 2010.

Photo: Obama Knows When Election Is Coming –

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