Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Parliament should reject the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill

Last evening, I was watching the live debate in the House of Commons on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill. A transcript of this debate is available here, in particular the following speech by Julian Sturdy, a Conservative MP for York Outer. He says (in full):

"I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to today's debate, as political and constitutional reform remains a key objective for this new Parliament. I shall, however, try to be brief as I am conscious of the fact that time is limited.

It is of the utmost importance that Members on both sides of the House consider the current state of our politics when addressing this Bill. It is fair to suggest that now, following the general election, it is time for this Parliament to move on from the recent depressing chapter in our political history. I believe that we cannot reflect on the current state of our politics and deny that some form of constitutional reform is required. All of us in this House are now charged with the responsibility of restoring the public's trust in our democracy and I welcome this Bill.

Some powerful arguments and good points have been made by Members on both sides of the House, and I must confess to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that I did not have anything to say about fixed-term Parliaments in my election address. However, I have been an enthusiastic supporter of fixed-term Parliaments since long before I was elected to the House, and I have always supported this Bill. I consider the current process for the Dissolution of Parliament to be outdated. Under current legislation, the Government of the day retain the ability to call an election as and when they choose within a parliamentary term, subject to the Monarch's approval. I fear that that provides any Government with an unfair advantage, and often encourages a crude, tactical political game to take place. As such, I strongly support the Prime Minister for taking the principled decision to give up his privileged ability to call an election. His absolute commitment to political reform cannot be doubted-but I do not think that was shared by his predecessor.

As set out under the Bill, the date of the next general election is to be 7 May 2015. Such a simple piece of reform immediately provides voters with greater clarity and understanding about their political system. To my mind, voters deserve to know when they can expect to re-elect or ditch their Government.

However, it is also essential for Parliament to retain the ability to hold the Government to account and, if necessary, force an early election, and I believe that that controversial issue has now been brought to a satisfactory conclusion through the provisions in clause 2. Ultimately, the House will be able to force an early election by either a vote of no confidence in the Government or a vote of at least two-thirds of all Members in favour of such an early election.

This Chamber's power will be protected, and I support the fact that the Bill deliberately seeks to weaken the hand of the Executive while injecting an element of reassurance and transparency into our often turbulent political world. It is not just the political village here in Westminster that will benefit from the stability of fixed-term Parliaments; the wider world of business will benefit, too. For too long, Prime Ministers have been able to call an election that suits their own political ends, yet such uncertainty and speculation often cause instability in our economic markets, which are constantly wary of potential political upheaval.

The most obvious example, which has been mentioned by hon. Members already, is the negativity that can flow from such an occurrence. Such negativity flowed from the threat of an election back in September 2007, when many of us in this Chamber were still candidates. The previous Prime Minister used the threat of an election as a political weapon in my view-a tactic that eventually backfired spectacularly, creating uncertainty in the country and in our economic markets while disrupting important parliamentary business.

Fixed-term Parliaments are perfectly normal in countless other democracies.

Mr George Howarth: Let me be absolutely clear in my mind: is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the electoral cycle needs to be aligned with the economic cycle?

Julian Sturdy: No, my point is that political uncertainty in the process that we have had-and that we had in 2007-can cause economic uncertainty. That is obviously bad news for our economy. Putting the election on a firm footing through fixed term Parliaments benefits our business colleagues and our economy as well as Parliament.

Gavin Shuker: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that for this coalition to keep on going positively for the economy it needs to be held together by such legislation?

Julian Sturdy: I do not believe that at all. This is part of a constitutional reform that must bring back trust to our politics. That is why I am supporting it: we need to bring the public back in line with this House. This is not the full picture, but it is part of that process. That is why I will support the Bill this evening.

Parliament will be strengthened by the Bill. It will produce a stable Government, which is important to our country."

I believe this speech contains several flawed arguments. These include:

1. A fixed-term of five years for each Parliament will help regain public trust.

It is certainly far from clear how this could be true. On the contrary, the public will be less able to exert pressure on unpopular governments and their policies as these governments need not particularly worry about public support in between elections. Deeply unpopular positions would not bring about a lack of confidence as each Parliament would be fixed and no confidence votes extremely difficult to pass. It is likely that this policy might worsen public trust in public officials.

There is a second reason, too. At present, a Parliament can last no longer than five years before a general election must be called. If Parliaments were fixed at five years, then it would permit all future Parliaments to sit a full five year term. This has often not been the case as elections have been forced to be held earlier. A fixed-term of five years gives future Parliaments all the benefits of holding democratic power without the full democratic support current Parliaments must possess. This is also likely to worsen public trust in public officials.

Finally, the reform of votes of no confidence is a further major mistake. The Bill states that a vote of no confidence may only be secured if either the House of Commons has a majority vote of no confidence in a new Government formed within 14 days or the House of Commons votes by at least two-thirds in favour of an early election. Thus, it would take about 17% more MPs to secure a vote of no confidence than it does at present. For example, there are 650 MPs. Today, only 325 MPs could trigger a vote of no confidence. However, if this Bill passes, it will require 434 MPs. In other words, an extra 109 MPs. This is a major mistake. It is difficult to see how public trust would be better enabled by virtually removing perhaps one of the more important instruments of democratic accountability in the current system. Parliaments can then enjoy a full five year term guaranteed and even where a majority of the House lacks confidence in the government. This is also likely to worsen public trust in public officials.

2. Constitutional reform is needed given the lack of public trust and, thus, we should support fixed-term Parliaments of five years each.

This does not follow. The constitutional problem was not that MPs were serving in Parliaments for too long (as general elections must be held at least every five years) nor for too short. The problem centred primarily on expenses claimed by MPs. If public trust was eroded because of a lack of confidence in the expense system, then it seems the reform needed is a root-and-branch examination of the expense system by a cross-party team with recommendations wholeheartedly endorsed by all sides in order to regain public trust. The idea that public trust may have been damaged and require reform may be correct, but it does support the view that we should support fixed-term Parliaments. It's apples and oranges.

3. Fixed-term Parliaments are a good thing because they would remove a Government's unfair advantage to call a general election when it believes conditions are best.

I do not believe this argument stands up to scrutiny either. Why? Well, if Governments have such an unfair advantage, then why isn't Gordon Brown still Prime Minister? Indeed, Labour just lost power in the last general election. This is evidence---indeed, the most recent evidence---that there does not seem any unfair advantage held by Governments. This argument does not hold water.

Furthermore, let's examine this argument more carefully. Fixed-term Parliaments guaranteeing a new Government a full five year term instead of a mere possibility of five years in power subject to overcoming any no-confidence votes, etc. remove a Government's unfair advantage in holding power? On the contrary, fixed-term Parliaments would guarantee a Government's unfair advantage in guaranteeing that every Parliament would sit a full term no matter what. Proponents might say that the good here is that the Government cannot fiddle with the general election date. This is wrong. All future Governments will be fiddling with the dates: they will be guaranteed full Parliament terms! This is an extraordinary change guaranteeing future Governments an unfair advantage.

4. Fixed-term Parliaments are a good thing because the public can better understand how they work.

I agree with Julian Sturdy that "voters deserve to know when they can expect to re-elect or ditch their Government." However, fixed-term Parliaments are not the answer. Let me explain why. First, if the public should better understand how the Government works, then perhaps the Government might require everyone to study civics and politics. The public will not gain some substantively more helpful understanding about the working of politics because there are fixed-terms. Nor is there any evidence to support this that I've seen.

Secondly, voters should deserve to know when they can expect to re-elect or ditch their Government, as Sturdy says. The problem here is that---with fixed-term Parliaments---the public's ability to put pressure on their MPs is dramatically less. At present, pressure might be mounted making a Government vulnerable to a no-confidence vote. The public at all times has the possibility of helping create conditions for a new Government. This will be removed by the passage of this Bill as votes of no confidence will be more difficult to secure than ever before. Thus, Sturdy's argument that the public should know when they can choose their politicians appears to have the answer of much less than you can at present---we're limiting your voice on this issue. Therefore, this Bill should be seen as inhibiting, not enabling, democracy.

5. Fixed-term Parliaments will weaken the executive.

This is not true. Without this Bill, a Government has no guarantee that it might remain in power for five years. This Bill strengthens the executive in giving it a virtual certainty of remaining in power for a full term. The executive is weaker without this Bill because a vote of no confidence can be acquired far, far more easily at present.

6. Fixed-term Parliaments will benefit business.

The argument here is that markets won't have to worry about political uncertainty as they will have great confidence that a Parliament will last for five years. Indeed, such "certainty" assumes that the business community supports the policies of every Government. If not (and this is likely), then businesses will have the certainty of despair (yes, my phrase---do feel free to quote me!) of labouring under policies they strongly oppose without any real ability to do much, if anythingm about it.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill will weaken, not strengthen, Parliament. I hope the full House will vote against accepting it and, if they make the mistake of passing the Bill, the House of Lords has the good sense to reject it.


Ben said...

There was a piece by Alan Hamlin in Politics some time in the last year or so on this issue - called something like 'Electing the Opposition' - in which he makes the point that the possibility of an election at any point keeps the Opposition on their toes too. If it was certain that the next General Election wouldn't be until May 2015 then Labour wouldn't have much to do for a while and could spend even longer over selecting a new leader.

The Brooks Blog said...

Many thanks for this, Ben. I will look this article up. That said, I'm not so sure how good it would be if opposition parties had more time to select leaders as this might also permit Governments a longer honeymoon period absent a clear opposition leader.