What is the point of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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Britain will go to the polls on 8 June following the spectacular failure of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to justify it’s existence.

I know I’m a little late to the party with this article (planning a wedding while working a full-time job makes blogging a little difficult), but it’s clear the Coalition Government’s flagship electoral reform is of little practical use.

Prior to 2011, the Queen could dissolve Parliament at any time simply upon the request of the Prime Minister, allowing the government of the day to opt for an early election if the polls appear to be in their favour – or to force a second election if the first resulted in an unstable hung parliament.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was first introduced to Parliament in July 2010 by the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as part of a package of constitutional reforms championed by the Liberal Democrats, including a referendum on changing the voting system to Alternative Vote, reducing the number of MPs and making constituency sizes more equal. At the time, Mr Clegg said:

The coalition government is determined to put power where it belongs – with people. You will decide how you want to elect your MPs.

By making constituencies more equal in size, the value of your vote will no longer depend on where you live, and with fewer MPs the cost of politics will be cut.

And, by setting the date that parliament will dissolve, our prime minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election – that’s a true first in British politics.

The Alternative Vote system was roundly rejected by the electorate and, partly as a result, the Liberal Democrats withdrew their support for reducing the number of MPs and redrawing the electoral boundaries. Fixed-term Parliaments, setting 5-year Parliaments in stone unless the incumbent government loses a vote of no confidence and cannot regain the confidence of the House within 14 days or a two-thirds majority of all MPs vote for an early election, was the only meaningful constitutional reform to make it onto the statute book.

The Act was meant to provide stability, almost guaranteeing a five-year timetable for governments to carry out their manifesto promises, whilst stopping Prime Ministers from holding an early election for political gain. To (mis)quote Captain Blackadder:

Blackadder

In the current Parliament, 434 MPs were required to vote in favour of an election. The two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour, hold 330 and 229 seats, respectively, or 559 MPs in total. The 2010 election resulted in 564 MPs for the top two parties. In 2005 they had 568 of the then 659 MPs, 579 MPs in 2001 and in 1997 the Government and Main Opposition accounted for a combined total of 583 MPs.

It would take an Opposition in an extreme state of dysfunction and disarray to refuse the electorate the opportunity to vote them into power and, when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was first called upon to stop what appeared to be a clear attempt by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to capitalise upon an almost-constant 20-point poll lead over a disunited Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, it failed miserably.

Even the desperate state Labour presently finds itself in was not enough to persuade more than a handful of it’s MPs to vote against an election, with the motion passing by 522 to 13. The only real opposition came from the Scottish National Party, who decided to abstain (which is, in reality, no different to voting against an election when the motion requires a positive vote from two-thirds of members to succeed).

Granted, the present political reality was not envisaged when the legislation was drawn up seven years ago; Britain is leaving the EU, the country is bitterly divided and the Prime Minister has a weak majority and no personal mandate from the electorate, having been anointed without so much as a vote of her own party members following the resignation of her predecessor.

That notwithstanding, if the decision to go to the country were so easy for MPs to take in such turbulent circumstances, it is incredibly difficult to imagine a scenario in which any bid for an early election would fail, calling the fundamental point of the Act into serious question.

Like it or not, we are heading for the polls on 8 June – and one of the first acts of the new government, whichever flag they fly under, should be to reform or scrap a pointless and redundant Fixed-term Parliaments Act!

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