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When the current coalition government introduced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, the case appeared compelling:
The Government believes that fixed-term Parliaments will have a positive impact on our country’s political system; providing stability, discouraging short-termism, and preventing the manipulation of election dates for political advantage.
(Government response to the report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, 2011, Introduction)
Now Tory MPs have changed their minds. This week a group of Tory backbenchers have been mounting a campaign to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Their aim has been to prepare the ground for a backbench debate on Thursday in which MPs will hold a symbolic vote on returning to the old days when Prime Ministers had full discretion to call elections as they saw fit.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is one of the few surviving elements of the Coalition’s ambitious programme of constitutional reform, which—had it been fully implemented—would have altered the UK’s majoritarian vision of democracy and elections extensively. The reforms were designed to change the nature of electoral representation (the referendum on the Alternative Vote), alter the composition of both Houses of Parliament (boundary review and House of Lords reform), and to reduce the power of the Prime Minister to time elections. In the event, internal coalition disagreements scuppered most of the reforms.
A successful and consequential reform, however, was the removal of the Prime Minister’s discretionary power to dissolve Parliament. Like other reform proposals, it was enshrined in the initial coalition agreement. The Act marked a profound change in planning for British general elections. Hitherto, elections had been announced as a personal decision of the Prime Minister using powers delegated to him under royal prerogative. The timing of the election was kept within a small policy circle and the date chosen for maximum advantage to the incumbent government.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 sets the period between elections at five years, and aims to fix the date of dissolution of Parliament and polling day. It allows for the early dissolution of Parliament in only two circumstances:
- - if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House or without division or;
- - if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.
This change moves the UK considerably closer to the practices and norms that predominate in most European countries concerning parliamentary dissolution. In most European constitutions governmental powers to dissolve Parliament—the central representative institution in a parliamentary democracy—are carefully circumscribed in order to prevent their abuse for partisan advantage. Typically these constitutions involve multiple actors in different capacities in the dissolution process. Some countries, such as Norway, simply do not allow early elections at all.
The switch from discretionary election timing to fixed term Parliaments makes a significant change to the majoritarian traditions of government in the UK. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act reduces the ability of incumbent governments to schedule elections at discretion and for electorally opportunistic reasons. It is improbable that a cross-partisan two-thirds majority could be achieved for a plan to call an election for the incumbent’s advantage. While the government could engineer its own defeat by instructing its MPs to pass a motion of no confidence in their own cabinet, that defeat would not be sufficient to bring about an election. The Act provides for a 14-day period to form an alternative government in the event that a government suffers defeat in a no-confidence vote. This creates a constitutional expectation that attempts be made to form a replacement government before a general election is called.
Implications for elections
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act removes the extensive advantages that discretionary election timing confers on incumbents. Opportunistically timed elections allow governments to ask voters to assess their performance at the most favourable time as far as the incumbents can forecast. This prediction is made much easier by the real informational advantage that the incumbents enjoy about current and future (economic) policy performance. No less importantly, discretionary election timing allows the incumbent to exploit not only their own strength, but also the weakness of the opposition. The element of surprise and short notice of opportunistic (as opposed to fixed) elections further plays into the hands of the incumbents and undermines the effectiveness of opponents’ electoral campaigns. Each of these factors alone can be successfully employed for electoral gain; their cumulative effect can be formidable.
Historically, UK prime ministers have made extensive use of the power to time elections for partisan advantage. The potential significance of the Act becomes apparent in light of the fact that just under 60% of the UK’s post-war elections (10/17) were early and opportunistically timed by the prime minister. In some recent research, Valerie Belu and I show that compared to regular elections (defined as elections which occur within 6 months of the end of a parliamentary term), strategically timed opportunistic elections have allowed governing parties to realize an average vote-share bonus of just under 6 percent and seat-share bonuses of 12 percent, doubling the probability that the Prime Minister survives in office (.80 versus .40) . These advantages are substantively very large. The magnitude of the vote-share bonus corresponds to the share of the vote won by a successful small party in most European democracies. The first past the post-system magnifies that bonus further, translating it into a 12 percent seat-share bonus on average, which can amount to the difference between a landslide victory and crushing electoral defeat.
In short, the advantages conferred to governing parties by the prime minister’s power to time elections have been an important factor in generating the inflated government majorities that have characterized UK politics post World War II. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act creates a more equitable electoral playing field between government and opposition.
Implications for governments
The second major effect of the Act is that it reduces the prime minister’s power to manage the opposition and tensions within the government itself. Thus, “one of the consequences of having a fixed-term Parliament [is] that the Prime Minister loses that bargaining power, the ability to be able to threaten a recalcitrant minority coalition partner with the consequences of an early election” (House of Commons, PCRC, 2013, HC440; Ev. 13). For the same reason, the Act reduces the ability of the Prime Minister to discipline his or her own recalcitrant back-benchers, or indeed troublesome opposition parties. Back-benchers, coalition partners and the parliamentary opposition can therefore become more assertive. This makes governments more accountable to Parliament.
Greater responsibility of the executive to Parliament demands less majoritarian styles of governance. Governments are likely to be more successful when they recognise these new limitations, instigate a more inclusive policy-making process, plan to take account of fall-back options and manage expectations carefully. More inclusive policy processes can be achieved in a range of different ways. For instance, governing parties might develop mechanisms that allow the party leadership to consult the wider party quickly and effectively. Coalition governments can find ways to channel the backbench views of all coalition partners into their policy discussions. Effective backbench committees and cross party consultations can be developed and become part of the policy-making process. In short, the Act imposes constraints that enhance the role of Parliament in shaping day-to-day government.
The motivation to repeal the Act
The current endeavor by Tory backbenchers to repeal the Act is based on a simple calculation – most forecasts predict that the 2015 general elections will result in another hung Parliament, in which the joint seat share of the two dominant parties, Labour and the Conservatives, will be eroded even further. The two smaller parties that are predicted do well in the 2015 elections, UKIP and the SNP, object to key aspects of the UK polity as it is currently construed. This gives appeal to the option of forming a minority government bolstered by a supply and confidence agreement until the first best opportunity arises to call a snap election. The main difficulty from the perspective of Conservative MPs who envisage that option is that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act rules out a snap election timed by the government to convert its minority into a working majority - hence the desire to undo the Act.
Why the Act should not be repealed
The irony of this initiative is that it illustrates a willingness to play politics with the constitution for short-term, partisan gain that is likely to compound the crisis of the majoritarian system which it seeks to perpetuate.
The campaign to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act comes at a moment in time when the UK’s majoritarian vision of democracy is suffering a deep crisis of legitimacy. Dissatisfaction with the Westminster model of government, its highly centralized executive and its majoritarian forms of representation is driving the continued electoral erosion of two-party dominance, the success of UKIP and the debate about Scottish independence and further devolution. At the heart of this crisis lies the search by voters for a vision of democracy and elections that disperses decision-making power more, affords more nuanced representation to UK citizens, and gives a broader range of parties access to the policy arena.
Against this background, the Conservative back benchers’ attempt to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in order to promote their party’s vested interests, just like the Prime Minister’s attempt to shape devolution with much the same aim in mind, appears ill advised. These initiatives feed, rather than address, the crisis of legitimacy that came strikingly close to tearing the UK apart in the Scottish Referendum barely a month ago.
In the current climate it is not only unlikely that voters, or indeed the other Westminster parties, would accept an argument by the Conservatives that it is best if they restore to themselves the exclusive power to call an election, and revert to the short-termism and the manipulation of election dates for partisan advantage that they decried just four years ago. It is also undesirable.
If the UK is to emerge intact and as a functioning polity from its current crisis of legitimacy, it must find more equitable and fairer ways of representing the interests of a greater proportion of the electorate, not revert to the majoritarian distortions that are fuelling the current crisis. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act creates pressures for prime ministers to adopt more inclusive patterns of governance. It marks a positive change from a mode of governance that has in the past enabled the Cabinet leadership to manipulate electoral accountability for partisan advantage and to exercise dominance over government backbenchers and the legislature. It is a step towards more equitable and nuanced electoral representation and the inclusion of a greater number of actors in the policy process which the UK badly needs.
This article is part of the Great Charter Debate series, in partnership with Oxford and Cambridge Universities, IPPR, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, and the University of Southampton.