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

Polling Station
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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!

Where have the missing votes gone?

Politics
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Yesterday, I signed a petition to support a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition local election candidate.

It’s unlikely to happen too often, I remain committed to UKIP. However, the matter at hand is not their policies, but democracy. Specifically, that we in a democratic society should be able to trust when the votes are declared that the result is accurate.

When Neil Davies, the Returning Officer, was announcing the number of votes cast for each candidate in the Rainham North ward, it should have been a routine matter, and it was treated as being a routine matter:

David John Carr, Conservative, 2,247
John Edward Castle, Liberal Democrat, 272
Paul Andrew Dennis, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition … 0

Cue gasps from those assembled at Medway Park, physically exhausted and mentally drained from a hard day’s campaigning, long night’s general election count and long evening’s local election count.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The story of Rainham North in 2015 was supposed to be the unseating of former Mayor of Medway, Vaughan Hewett, after his defection to UKIP. A candidate polling 0 votes – a first in Medway Council’s short history – was never in the script.

But there the story takes a sinister turn. Because, although the Returning Officer declared 0 votes, the candidate declared that he had voted for himself. So, apparently, did his family. So where did their votes go?

It is a question for which Mr Dennis is eager to receive an answer:

This is impossible. The result sticks out like a sore thumb. I know people who have voted for me. I live in the ward and definitely voted for myself! Since the result was announced others have been on touch to say they also voted for me. So why have our votes not been counted? The council needs to answer this.

On that last point, I couldn’t agree more. The council does need to answer this. Not because it will have any material effect on the outcome (it is extremely unlikely that over 1,900 TUSC votes went awry, which is what it would have taken to win a seat). The mere fact that there is a question mark hanging over this one ward means that there is, in many people’s minds, a question mark hanging over every result that was declared at Medway Park.

Most people who believe in democracy believe in a free and fair democracy. Whilst there is no suggestion that the election wasn’t free, how can it be assessed to be fair if a candidate’s votes appear to have gone missing? How can any impartial observer have faith in the remainder of the results if one of them appears to be inaccurate?

Unlikely though it may appear on the surface, there may be a rational explanation for the missing votes. But we don’t know – and we won’t know all the while Medway Council remains disinterested. Their reaction so far is one of apathy. The matter is not being treated with the seriousness it should merit – or, indeed, any seriousness at all. That is, frankly, unacceptable.

That is why I signed the petition – and I would urge each one of you to do the same. Because no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, you should be concerned that votes appear to have gone missing. It undermines democracy and damages faith in the electoral process.

Medway Council must investigate what has happened to these votes – and assure voters that such confusion can never arise again.

Still time to register to vote

Your Vote Matters
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We are fast approaching 7 May – when voters across the country will have their say in the most important, and most unpredictable, general election in my lifetime.

If you live within Medway, you will also have the opportunity to vote for the councillors you wish to represent you for the next four years.

However, you will only be able to vote if you are registered – so it is important to ensure that you are eligible if you wish to have your say.

The bad news is that time is fast running out. You need to be on the register by Monday, 20 April in order to vote.

The good news is that you can register online by visiting www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. It only takes about five minutes, and all you need to have to hand is your National Insurance number. You can also use the service to update the details currently held on the register.

If you are not able to get to your polling station on election day, then you can either vote by post or appoint a proxy to do so on your behalf. Applications to vote by post must be received by 5pm on Tuesday, 21 April and applications to appoint a proxy must be received by 5pm on Tuesday, 28 April. Details on how to apply for each of these can be found on the Medway Council website (if you live within Medway).

There are now just four weeks to go until election day, but, whoever you wish to vote for, or if you haven’t yet made up your mind, you can only do so if you are registered.

Battlefield Medway 2015: Too Close To Call

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In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, I developed a computer model to project the vote share among the four main parties in Medway, which was largely accurate.

On the eve of polling day, I published my final projection results via Twitter, then sat through the count watching with interest to see how accurate my computer model had been.

The results were impressive:
 

Chatham & Aylesford
Party Candidate Projection Result Margin
Conservative Tracey Crouch 46% 46% 0
Labour Jonathan Shaw 36% 32% -4
Liberal Democrats John McClintock 15% 13% -2
UK Independence Party Steve Newton 4% 3% -1

 

Gillingham & Rainham
Party Candidate Projection Result Margin
Conservative Rehman Chishti 47% 46% -1
Labour Paul Clark 29% 28% -1
Liberal Democrats Andy Stamp 19% 18% -1
UK Independence Party Robert Oakley 5% 3% -2

 

Rochester & Strood
Party Candidate Projection Result Margin
Conservative Mark Reckless 50% 49% -1
Labour Teresa Murray 35% 29% -6
Liberal Democrats Geoff Juby 14% 16% +2
UK Independence Party Did not stand

The model, which combined local and national polling to provide a local picture, was, in most cases, correct within a reasonable margin of error. The only exception was in Rochester & Strood, were UKIP’s decision not to field a candidate against Mark Reckless made projecting the vote share there a little more complicated.

Over the weekend, Liberal Democrat blogger Chris Sams released his predictions for Battlefield Medway 2015. His analysis is quite detailed, and I would urge readers to take a look for themselves, but in essence he claims Rochester & Strood will be a Conservative hold, Gillingham & Rainham will be a Labour gain and Chatham & Ayelsford could go either way.

I thought this a little optimistic, and couldn’t see Chatham & Ayelsford being too closest to call, so I resurrected my computer model and updated the figures to calculate projections on where the votes currently lie:
 

Chatham & Aylesford
Party Candidate Projection Margin
Conservative Tracey Crouch 41% 38% – 44%
Labour Tristan Osborne 42% 39% – 45%
Liberal Democrats To be confirmed 4% 1% – 7%
UK Independence Party To be confirmed 11% 8% – 14%
Projected Result Labour Gain

 

Gillingham & Rainham
Party Candidate Projection Margin
Conservative Rehman Chishti 41% 38% – 44%
Labour Paul Clark 43% 40% – 46%
Liberal Democrats To be confirmed 4% 1% – 7%
UK Independence Party To be confirmed 9% 6% – 12%
Projected Result Labour Gain

 

Rochester & Strood
Party Candidate Projection Margin
Conservative Mark Reckless 42% 39% – 45%
Labour To be confirmed 40% 37% – 43%
Liberal Democrats To be confirmed 10% 7% – 11%
UK Independence Party To be confirmed 5% 2% – 8%
Projected Result Conservative Hold

The results speak for themselves. Rochester & Strood is projected to be a Conservative hold, Gillingham & Rainham a Labour gain and Chatham & Aylesford closest to call. Mr Sams, I eat my words!

The projection shows that the Liberal Democrat vote has virtually collapsed in Chatham & Aylesford and Gillingham & Rainham (as evidenced in both the national opinion polls and the 2011 local election), but has been largely resilient in Rochester & Strood. Conversely, UKIP has surged in Chatham & Aylesford and Gillingham & Rainham, but remained static in Rochester & Strood (they achieved only 4% of the vote in 2005) – perhaps largely due to the anti-EU nature of the incumbent Tory.

Of course, these projections are based, partly, upon mid-term opinion polling, and the political landscape may change dramatically between now and 2015. However, when you consider the figures involved, and particularly the margins of error included in the tables for information, one thing is clear:

At the moment, Battlefield Medway 2015 is too close to call!