Monday, October 08, 2007

Fixed Term Parliaments: The Time Has Come

Gordon Brown held the door slightly ajar for the prospect of fixed term parliament,s but like George Osborne, he seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. A fixed term in a parliamentary democracy does not mean than you cannot have an election within the four (or five) year term. If the government fails to command a majority on a vote of no confidence then an election must be called. In Germany they even have so-called "constructive votes of no confidence" where the government MPs vote against their own party. This then means an election has to be held (this happened in 1982, I think).

Two LibDem MPs are tabling a Bill on Fixed Term parliaments today. I fully support the idea. It's now time for a cross party campaign to be launched. Watch this space. If anyone would like to be involved in such a campaign, please email me iain AT iaindale DOT com.

Conor Burns has written on the subject on Con Home today HERE.

54 comments:

Newmania said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

Constructive votes of no confidence mean that the German system is practically the same as the UK system. The majority in the German parliament always have the option to force an election, just as the UK PM has the option to call an election.

Chris Paul said...

Will blog about this later. Generally like it. But even a narrower window - between 4th and 5th years except in defined circumstances would be an improvement. More anon.

(Agree with Alex re Deutchland)

Anonymous said...

The last "constructive dissolution" of the Bundestag was in 2006, nicht wahr?

Schroeder invited the SPD to vote against the Government, to force a dissolution, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth and recourse to the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

Dusanne said...

Have to agree with Alex, if constructive votes of no confidence are allowed, all you've achieved is reducing the term from 5 to 4 years. This may be a good or bad thing, but is a different debate.

Surely, to be effective such votes would have to prohibited, and I'm sure it's not beyond the wit of man do devise a satisfactory measure. I would imagine that there could be something that put the matter in the speaker's hands, or in the alternative clarify the current Lascelles Principles that the Monarch may refuse a dissolution if "the existing Parliament was still vital, viable, and capable of doing its job"

Anonymous said...

I believe in Sweden the parliament my vote for a dissolution but the new parliament is only elected for the remaining term of the old one - sounds reasonable to me, if you left, say, a three month period of gace.

Anonymous said...

Any parliamentary system inevitably means that when the majority in Parliament want an election they will get it. Either openly as here or under a procedural trick as in Germany.

Fixed terms imply a Presidwential system.

In any case I think this has just been proven a non-problem. When Gordon was playing with an early election he suddenly lost up to 15% of the vote. Whatever one thinks of inheritance tax that was not the reason. Consequently, for at least a couple of generations, no politician is going to think about it again.

Guthrum said...

Of course I am in favour, but it is just tinkering around the edges, we need root and branch reform, written Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Zeitgeist is Taxation and Liberty. The fact that disposable income is now at its lowest for a decade, plus the popularity of the virtual abandonment of inheritance tax, shows the way the way that the public is going. However asking politicians to vote for a small State is like asking Turkeys to Vote for Christmas

Anonymous said...

What is wrong with the American system which has worked well for the electorate for over 200 years? Plus a maximum of two terms for the chief executive, in case he and his buddies get too entrenched at the public trough.

Anonymous said...

Just don't bother going there, Iain. You'll be asking for proportional representation next!!

Anonymous said...

In other words, a fixed four-year term, after which there is a national election and if the voters wish, they can give that president a chance at another four year term to finish his programmes, or chuck him out right then.

No one should be in a position of such power, on the public purse, for longer than eight years max. Fixed term means the voter is in control, whereas we have the ridiculous system that the person who will benefit most from manipulating the term in office is the one who controls it.

Newmania said...

Its awfully hard for a socialist to understand this but some things work well because they are imperfect. Polling used to be a rough and ready business but politicians have worked on it and got it better....( I `m joking of course).... Seriously Tescos and the like have improved their marketing over the years under the pressure of competition and it is now exceedingly sophisticated. Labour’s soft ware is called MOSAIC uses the technology and it subdivides categories into tiny constituencies. ‘Coronation Street Woman’, ‘White Van Man’,are typical “ Urban genius “....is me

This technology as revealed by Martin Bright was used by Gordon Brown to judge the moment of electorus interruptus . Given the risks we may surmise that the picture was even bleaker than the marginal Polls when you really started to pull it apart.

We are running into problems here. There is an asymmetry of knowledge between the state and the individual now that has the effect of denying us a real vote by the use of electoral timing . Polling works too well and I think we are going to have to move to fixed terms despite all its many drawbacks. In this swirl of frightening new exactitude it pleasing that women are continuing to give Pollsters the heebie jeebies. In the past two weeks men have drifted within an average oscillation of 8% . Women have vacillated and dithered over a colossal 23%. I cannot imagine why this might be ......

Anonymous said...

If there'd been fixed term parliaments, one J Callaghan wouldn't have had to go to the country when he lost a confidence vote and might well have won the subsequent/proceeding election. Your hero, one M Thatcher, might thus have been consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’.

And you wouldn't have liked that now would you?

Fixed terms are more appealing to opposition parties just as the idea of PR is unlikely to impress a party that's won power through FPTP.

Get used to it, GB's probably going to be PM for 20 months or maybe as many as 30 without 'going to the country'...

Anonymous said...

I remember reading once that if Tony Blair is to be the guardian of our unwritten constitution, the writer saw the advantage in having a written one. If Gordon Brown is to be the man who decides when to have an election, and who would do so in order to "destroy" the main opposition party, then I favour removing the power from his neo-Stalinist clutches altogether.

It's extraordinary that NuLab are such dismal guardians of our system of government that we find ourselves needing to tinker with structures that have worked fine for centuries, simply in order to prevent the type of constitutional vandalism they try to implement. I just hope that a future Conservative government will be able to mend some of the damage.

Anonymous said...

The British system relies heavily on precedent. I guess psj and all the other Tory fans on this site were quite happy when Mrs T exercised her right and went to an early election in 1983 on the back of the Falkland's factor? Now that wasn't exploiting our servicemen and/or abusing her powers at all was it? What's sauce for the goose is ditto for the gander...

lizziebh said...

I am not convinced by the argument of fixed terms for Government but am for Prime Ministers and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. More than two terms leads to egomaniacs. Bliar was off his trolley after one term let alone three. Brown is lready totally out of touch with reality and even the "Sainted Maggie" lost it

Newmania said...

Eric ....that sort of gross judgement was part of the system and always had been. Fine details od polling analysis however set up an assymmetry that is dangerous for democracy.


Brown`s sins are many and I truly believe him to be a disaster for the country . In this however he is doing what anyone would with the information they have . The same information is available to Cameron which is how Labour lost the marginals on the first place .

I think it is more in the context of running the country like a rolling press release for ten years that people have had enough.

Anonymous said...

This is what Brown and his fellow travellers want to reduce Britain to. Absolute servitude.

Communism is against striving, aspirational human nature.

Also, Iain, I doubt whether there are any rice puddings. Sugar grows in tropical countries and for sure N Korea doesn't have the money to import such a trivial item.

Iain Dale said...

Eric, that is a travesty of the truth. Thatcher called the 1983 election one month into her fifth year. If she had wanted to capitalise on the falklands factor she would have gone to the country well before that.

Newmania said...

Fixed Term Parliaments: The Time Has Come



No sorry ...as you were the time hasn`t come after all

G Brown

Whispering Walls said...

Another nail in the coffin of British individuality...Can't believe you've been brainwashed by statism, Iain

pxcentric said...

I have never seen someone demolish his own argument as effectively as that.

In Germany they even have d'oh!

Chris Paul said...

Was very glad to co-operate with Tory Thunder Dragon in nailing some mendacious Lib Dems but sadly it couldn't last as Tories were found doing the same thing in spades. Ironically via a google advert at TDs.

Newmania said...

Eric, that is a travesty of the truth. Thatcher called the 1983 election one month into her fifth year.

So there , but lets not start canting in Labour stylee. I would be less than pleased if the boy king Dave did not use the Polls to adjust the election timing Iain .You can hardly have a system that relies on a nebulous duty not to try to hard to win.
Brown managed it badly but it would be worse if its was handled well.

The problem is the amount and accuracy of Polling. Fixed term are not the bomb either as policy can be skewed into the cycle but I think we will have to accept that. At the present rate the election is going to be as flawed as the local Consultations which are always set so as to give the right answer.


I see the fury around this reverse as connected to the realisation that the country is still being run by spin and focus groups.


Blair is Brown and Brown is Blair

Fair is foul and Foul is fair

Wierd Sisters of the Scottish Play

Which is which I cannot say

Anonymous said...

Individual MPs should be appointed for a fixed term of five years. A bye-election to be held when they come to the end of their term.

Anonymous said...

"Eric, that is a travesty of the truth. Thatcher called the 1983 election one month into her fifth year." quite - one month, not twelve months into her full five year term. Anyway, as my earlier post demonstrated, she'd probably never have got in had JC been on a four year fixed term on account of the risk-averse old thing would probably have got back in if he'd gone then before 'the winter of hysterical media'.

And Mrs T went a year early in 1987...

Unknown said...

Spot on. This needs cross party support.

Anonymous said...

I hope you are not suggesting that the Queen's power to sack her prime minister and dissolve parliament should be curtailed?

Seriously, the current system would work better if the head of state was in a position to say "sod off" to a prime minister wanting an early dissolution for party political reasons.

Anonymous said...

didn't brown already say (i think in his first week as pm) that he thought parliament should have the power to call elections? this seems to be almost the exact same proposal. and to the guy above ('danvers'), what are you on about? what difference would it make if we made it official that the queen has no power?

Anonymous said...

The electorate expect a government with a decent majority to govern for 4-5 years. Mrs Thatcher's opinion on the subject was that a government with a healthy majority should always wait until the final year of the quinquennium, and then go as soon as it thinks it can win. So, no, eric, she wouldn't have gone unreasonably early.

The only circumstances in which I can see this being inappropriate is if there is some huge, unanticipated issue on which the government doesn't have a mandate, or if the government has lost the confidence of the Commons or the monarch. Neither of these apply here.

Yak40 said...

Ideal scheme would be one that made it impossible for socialists to ever win.

It would save everyone time and gobs of money.

ian said...

Weren't the tories demanding last week an early election? Can't you make up your mind?

Anonymous said...

Let's not waste time and energy on yet more tinkering to a stystem that works well, flexible terms keep oppositions working hard.

We have just had an opportunity of stupendous proportions open up in front of us, let's not get sidetracked by this liberal/ anorak stuff about systems....

Hughes Views said...

Another illusion shattered! I'd marked you down as a lover of all things quaint, 'traditional' and mildly eccentric about England. Warm beer, variable-term parliaments, West Ham United, the House of Lords, Morris Men, Tunbridge Wells, Ann Widecombe and all that strange sort of stuff.

But alas no, here you go - wanting to sweep aside centuries of fine tradition. You'll be having us driving on the right, munching garlic and joining the Euro next...

Anonymous said...

The difference being that the Queen (or in fact, her representative) sacked an Australian government in the 1970s which caused a real stink over there (almost as bad as being beaten by the English at rugby), because a PM was attempting to cling on to power when he had no working majority.

My serious point is that I do not believe you can tinker with bits of the constitution in isolation so if you are going to make this relatively small change you have to recognise the knock-on effects and inevitably you end up reforming the constitution as a whole. Otherwise you end up in exactly the same mess as we are in over Scottish and Welsh devolution and House of Lords reform.

Anonymous said...

Someone above said: "Seriously, the current system would work better if the head of state was in a position to say "sod off" to a prime minister wanting an early dissolution for party political reasons."

Do we know for certain that she didn't say just that last Friday afternoon when she was sounded out about an appointment on Tuesday? Just a thought...

No, Iain, the first poster, Alex, has destroyed your argument. The British Constitution depends on the sense of propriety of the major players. For about 10 days it looked as though the present incumbant didn't have it. This has been instructive in revealing his character but, as he ultimately didn't get an election (if not because the Monarch vetoed it, then for his own venal reasons of course), the constitution has been upheld.

As it is not necessary to change this, it is necessary not to change it.

However, IF you were going to have fixed term Parliaments it should be the (appointed/hereditary) House of Lords who votes to advise the Monarch whether she should accept a request for an early Dissolution. To vote on a free vote by secret ballot, without fear or favour, and off with their heads if the slightest sign of covert whipping is detected.

Anonymous said...

No, Iain, they have fixed Parliaments and Presidential elections in the USA. Do we really want electioneering to dominate and distort the normal processes of government> I don't.

Anonymous said...

No, John Punshon; America doesn't have a Parliament - unless you are referring to the whole N American continent, in which case, Canada does. They have an Executive and they have a Congress.

"Do we really want electioneering to dominate and distort the normal processes of government> I don't."

Where have you been for the last three years, while Tony Blair decided what he was going to do next - stay on as British PM, President of Europe, King of the World, oh, the choices! And then the succession. The American system is much more stable and scrutinised and there are rules which, if broken, mean the candidate or the party can be called to account.

The ancient British system, as someone wisely noted above, was based on trust and the honourable intentions of the people governing. We no longer have this assurance in Britain, and we need to build some democratic levées fast to keep the entire edifice from breaking.

The barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta because they judged him too powerful. It can happen again, this time with an over-mighty elected representative.

Geezer said...

Iain Dale said...
"Eric, that is a travesty of the truth. Thatcher called the 1983 election one month into her fifth year."


It's amazing how many lefties come out with the same crap as Eric. Delusion is an important part of the socialist mind-set.
In that case, Blair legged it to the polls a year early, TWICE! I mean, what a Chicken!
Heath, Wilson etc. etc.

Governments go to fifth year if their chances look bleak at 4 years. John Major, obvious example.

And anyway, Thatcher would have beaten Foot in '84 and Kinnock in '88 every bit as badly as the pasting they took a year before.

Eric, about time you grew-up sonny.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting (or not) that the Chartist uprising in the 1840's was due to their extremely radical demands for:

Universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21
Equal-sized electoral districts
Voting by secret ballot
An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
Pay for members of Parliament
Annual election of Parliament

Although the uprising was crushed and some people died, then all of these years later it's only fixed parliaments which they haven't achieved.

One year is a bit extreme though.

Anonymous said...

That was indeed interesting, Geoff! Thank you!

boanerges said...

Iain,
re:Ian5.39pm
Is it not possible to introduce some sort of QI style 'alarm' which goes off when a troll or other comes up with a stupid post to which the answer is blindingly obvious (No pun intended,Gordon).
I realise that such posts are rightly ignored for they rubbish they are but I do get fed up with them not being challenged, therefore...

When asked by the media if he was relishing the prospect of an Autumn election given the polls before the Conservative Conference Dave should answer
a) No, are you mad, haven't you see the Polls
or
b)Yes, Bring it on

Duncan Borrowman said...

The problem with Guthrum's line is that it would die an early death. Taking the issue by itself is far more likely to succeed.

Anonymous said...

As the first poster Alex points out, if you want democracy, you need to dissolve parliament when there's no working majority, and stripping the power to request a dissolution out of the Royal Prerogative as exercised in accordance with the Lascelles Principles, and putting it on a statutory basis will throw the matter to the judiciary, which is nuts.

If you're going to expend time on Chartistry, can't you campaign for eliminating the malapportionment of seats which advantages Welsh and Scottish voters at the expense of English and Irish?

The claim above by danvers that the Queen dissolved both houses of Australia's parliament in the 1970s is a disgraceful lie. Her Majesty has no such power when not present in Australia, indeed before the 1960s had no such power at all; it is normally exercisable solely by the Governor General.

M. Hristov said...

This is an interesting idea and, for once, I am going to have to agree with Verity. It is time to curb the elective dictatorship. The Prime Minister’s power is greatly enhanced by having the option to call elections, whenever he can get the Queen to do so (ie anytime). A restriction would help to limit this power. However, there would also have to be statutory safeguards, which would allow the calling of an early election in certain circumstances (eg if the ruling party’s majority fell below 10 seats). A good idea but one which is unlikely to be taken up by any sitting Prime Minister even if he claims to be considering it.

Anonymous said...

What world is Verity living in? The US system is only 'stable' in terms of fixed structure. It is a system in which there is little relationship between what Americans want and what Congress produces (undermining trust in the system) and no core accountability.

There is also research to show a correlation between parliamentary systems and political stability.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:04 "What world is Verity living in?"

Ah, the condescending ... "someone who doesn't agree with me must be living on a different planet because I am the carrier of the holy grail on Earth ...".

I'm living in this world, Anonymous.

Both systems have advantages and have worked fairly reliably.

Unfortunately, the British system is subject to malintent by the people charged with administering it, whereas the United States has more stable structures in place to deal with malfeasance. This is proved by the fact that Blair and his wife got away with trashy, greedy behaviour and using his positition for financial advantage and self aggrandisement, and there are more checks and balances on a president than there are on a prime minister.

We operate on trust. That needs to be put in the past tense.

Americans are pragmatists. Their way is better.

So, Anonymous, what world are you living in? Planet Lefty? How's the weather?

Anonymous said...

It is a system in which there is little relationship between what Americans want and what Congress produces (undermining trust in the system) and no core accountability.

This is utterly and demonstrably false. In fact, the American political system is characterized by quite the opposite: an extremely tight relationship between what American voters "want and what Congress produces." I'd say this is true to a far greater degree than in most of Europe, or indeed Britain.

American voters want cheap petrol. Their legislators oblige them with the lowest fuel taxes in the rich world. Americans want help paying their mortgages. Their legislators oblige them with a tax code that does exactly this. Americans like guns. Their legislators oblige them with the loosest gun regulations just about anywhere. Americans hate taxes but love government spending. Their legislators oblige them with relatively low income taxes, and relatively high deficits to make up the difference. This list could be extended a lot longer.

The United States to my American eyes appears to be an increasingly poorly managed country. But this state of affairs is to be blamed on too much democracy, not too little. I suspect this largely flows from the constitutional requirement for the lower house of congress to stand for reelection every other year. A British administration can, I'm told, delay facing the voters up to five years -- thereby giving its MPs some breathing room, and giving unpopular but necessary policies a half decade to bear fruit. American officials have no such luxury. The fact that most of the United States Congress is never more than twenty-four months from an election raises the political cost of wise but unpopular legislation to a level that is usually unfordable to the politicians who must pay the bill.

The polity of the Unites States in general is characterized by a surfeit of democracy, and by a resulting imperviousness to reform.

Anonymous said...

Jasper - Thanks for your summing up, albeit in a rackety,pub-bar sense, of the way America administers itself.

Not every representative is up for election every year. They each get a two year term. Let's not get confusing here.

The president has four years to complete the programme he promised and earn another four years.

He doesn't have the option of grandly according the voters an election when he feels it is to his advantage.

And Americans aren't as fractured as the mean-spirited British want to believe. If any president tried to delay his departure by as much as 24 hours, I assure you that the creationists, the anti-abortionists, the presidents of out-sourcing companies and presidents of multinationals, schoolteachers, heads of, and people who work for, law firms ... would all be on the march. Plus surgeons, health spa instructors, actors and actresses, screenwriters, dockers ...

whatever, would be united. And by 'on the march', I mean each in his own way.

In Britain, there's nothing to march for because the PM has a lordly choice. Like Tony Blair, who called elections at his convenience, and, had he managed it cleverly enough, could have stayed in office for 20 years. Or more.

The American way is best, and it is time for us to evolve, as we have evolved over the last thousand years, and adopt the American system with its checks and failsafes.

Liam Murray said...

Completely agree and I think Cameron missed a trick on Sunday morning (Marr, Boulton etc.) by not saying more on this - it would've made things even more uncomfortable for Brown if he'd said 'this is unnacceptable, no PM should have such power over when he/she gets to consult the public. When in office my government... etc.'

Happy to support such a campaign...

Anonymous said...

As usual Verity displays her self-opinionated ignorance.

Every two years one-third of the 100-strong Senate and the entire (435 strong) House of Representatives are up for election.

Paul Burgin said...

I am attracted to the idea Iain, but two things spring to mind

1)It was suggested some fifteen years ago in the Commons by a Labour frontbencher and the govt disagreed. After all as much as the Conservatives attack Labour for wanting to call elections when the Conservatives are most likely to lose, likewise the Tories in govt are not above doing the same thing.

2)It takes away some of the constitutional powers from the Crown, so one would need to look at this carefully

I am not against the idea, I can just see a lot of obsticles and it is worth remembering that calling elections does not always work to the advantage of the PM who calls them as we have seen in 1970 and in 1974 (Feb)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:36. Dear person who has reading comprehension problems: We were talking about the chief executive not having the right to choose the time of the NATIONAL election to suit his party's chances of winning. That is, not having it in his power to choose the time of the dissolution of Parliament.

We were talking of a fixed term for the ADMINISTRATION.

We were not talking of the CONGRESS. Yes, the Congress, which we were not discussing, comprises the Senate and the House of Representatives - 435 strong, as you rightly note, as though this is somehow relevant. This seems to be new and exciting knowledge for you. I learned it at school in the US.

Anonymous said...

We were talking of a fixed term for the ADMINISTRATION.

Verity: I was indeed talking (mostly) about the congress, and not the presidency. I used the term "administration" to refer to a British government -- not an American presidency. I was making the point -- perhaps not very clearly -- that in Britain the legislature can delay facing the voters up to a half decade, whereas in the US the legislature (or at least the half of it called "The House of Representatives") is elected every other year. It is my opinion that it is this feature -- the frequency of lower house elections -- that, more than any other, effectively keeps America's national government in constant fear of American voters. Sometimes that's a good thing. Often times, it's not so good. Right now, I reckon the country's in need of reform, and some of it is likely to be painful. For such a situation, the American constitution is just about the worst one imaginable. Voters tend not to be so keen on voting pain for themselves.