Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Fixed term parliaments should be 4 years, not 5

One thing that has got a bit lost in all the talk of the AV referendum and the size of constituencies is the fact that an important part of the constitutional measures includes fixing parliamentary terms for 5 years.

I am in favour of fixed term parliaments. The nonsense that the country has to go through as we get towards the end of the fourth year of a parliament where we all have to play guessing games about when the next election will be and the Prime Minister of the day tries to juggle things in such a way as to announce the date to maximum advantage of themselves and their party needs to stop. The timing a general election should not be for a politician to use to their own ends.

However I am uncomfortable with the idea that parliaments will be fixed for 5 years. Under the existing rules, that is the longest possible time that a parliament can run for. I see no reason why the fixed term should be set at this current maximum.

The devolved assemblies/parliaments all have 4 year terms including the London Assembly. What is the case for making the UK-wide elections any longer than this?

Successful Prime Ministers generally hold them every 4 years anyway. Tony Blair always did as did Margaret Thatcher and they did pretty well electorally. It is usually only when a government is failing that it runs the full course. Do we really want to be fixing the term to match the period of time that John Major's 1997 and Gordon Brown's 2010 administrations ran to?

I expect I am not the only one who feels like this and I anticipate various amendments including one to reduce the term to 4 years will be forthcoming as the legislation is debated in the coming months. I hope the government is receptive to the idea that a shorter term will be better for democracy in this country.

A well run government would have nothing to fear from a 4 year fixed term parliament.


Andrew Hickey said...

I suspect *this* Parliament will actually require a five-year term, for two reasons, one good and one very bad.
The good one is that it could easily take several years to implement the AV system, redraw constituency boundaries and so on, and educate the public about this, after a successful referendum.
The bad one is it might take that long to get the economy into anything like a sane shape, and neither coalition party wants to see their support crash catastrophically.

Mark Thompson said...

@Andrew: I agree for this particular government it might be a bit tricky for it only to run for 4 years but I am afraid that is not a good enough reason to condemn us forever more to 5 year parliaments.

I am sure with the political will the reviews can be done more quickly to ensure an election in May 2014 is under AV and the new boundaries.

As for the economy, well them's the breaks but if we are on the right road it will surely be clear in 4 years' time?

Lee Griffin said...

The arguments on this seem to largely be about feeling rather than anything of substance. Why 4 years?

Why not 3 years? A typical review might take 2 years from inception to completion, and a bill can become law for that within 1. A government can come in, set it's agenda in motion, and by the end of 3 years have implemented it. It would encourage more efficient processes of finding out answers (if needed).

I think that both 4 and 5 years are too long, but aside from the perhaps flimsy reasons I give above that view is too just a feeling.

For instance I would prefer that we looked at a system of half elections every 2-3 years, that would allow governments to be sacked early if the public felt it was going wrong, but also enabled a sense of stability to get longer term programmes finished.

Should we not approach it that this sort of period of obviously hard times for legislation and governance would be a good test of a system, and that if 5 years appears to be too long that we lobby our parties and MPs to bring that down by a year?

Benjamin said...

I used to agree with you. But I've just had to fight a set of council elections on the same day as a general. It is a totally different animal.

A 4-year cycle would syncronise parliamentary elections to always coincide with the same round of council elections, giving some councillors in an authority an unfair advantage or disadvantage electorally and in the case of all-up authorities, permanently subsuming their local politics into a side-show for the general election. Just look at the massive gains the Tories made in last year's County Council elections. Yes they had a good year but it was also the first time the Counties had elected without a simultaneous general election since 1993!

Unknown said...

This was discussed extensively when the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments was first announced. IIRC it the first big argument about the coalition agreement and the BBC's Have Your Say page was very lively. Other bloggers, such as Tom Harris MP, have also discussed it lately.

I would describe it another way. We already have a limit on the duration of Parliaments, as you say - 5 years. There is no proposal to amend that duration.

What is being proposed is that the power to cut a Parliamentary term short is being taken away from the Prime Minister and given to Parliament, and that is the mechanism for ensuring a fixed-term.

dougf said...

I like the 5 year terms. It's a massive cost savings and that is surely one of the most important considerations in these difficult times.
For example over a 20 year period, the State would have to pay for 1 fewer election. I'm sure that would amount to quite a tidy sum. Plus there would be one fewer campaign and this would be 'greener' for the country. Don't you have any care for the carbon footprints at all ? :-)

Plus, as others have said ----- what's the difference ?

Bill Quango MP said...

I would like to see Cameron introduce a two term limit for PM.
After 10 years any leader is a burnt out, tired, disliked and vulnerable wreck. The plotters grow tire of waiting, having become ten years older themselves.
Only dictatorships and socialist paradises such as Cuba have leaders for life.

The US system is better. The incumbent party campaigns to win a third term but with a new leader.

It makes so much sense. I'm sure Labour's vote would have been bigger in 2005 without Blair.
Easier for Major's Tories to present themselves as something new without Thatcher.
Imagine how strong it would make Dave look today if he announced it. Stops tomorrows coups too.
I'm surprised that parties don't insist on it.

Pete Green said...

The government, more or less unchallenged, is bending important constitutional reforms to its own convenience. This is worse than a disgrace: it's outright dangerous.

Constitutional issues such as the length of parliaments, the 55/66 no-confidence vote requirement, the number of MPs and constituency boundary reform are too important to be tinkered with according to party expediency.

In the interests of neutrality and public confidence, issues like these should be looked at by a Royal Commission before Parliament even thinks about legislation.

Bernard Salmon said...

The government, more or less unchallenged, is bending important constitutional reforms to its own convenience.

Nonsense - if anything, fixed term parliaments are less convenient for governments than our current system, as they can't cut and run as it suits them in the hope of getting another term in office.
As to the issue of Westminster elections clashing with local or devolved elections, there's a simple solution - make this Parliament a fixed 4.5 year term with the election in September/October 2014 and thereafter have the election every four or five years after that (I'm fairly agnstic on the actual length of the fixed term).

Left Lib said...

I agree with you , it should be 4 years. I dread the thought of this Parliament being 5 years. By 4 years people can make a judgement on the government, those who hold out for longer do so because they are failing.
To reply to Andrew, I cannot imagine why it should take so long to redraw the constituency boundaries. And for that matter, I do not see why the introduction of AV should be dependent on that. Maybe that is the Coalition agreement, but the size of the constituencies does not in itself prevent the introduction of AV.

Pete Green said...

Nonsense - if anything, fixed term parliaments are less convenient for governments than our current system, as they can't cut and run as it suits them in the hope of getting another term in office.

I'm talking about this particular government, at this particular time. And this particular government, at this particular time, will clearly do well out of delaying the next general election as long as possible. Four years in, the cuts will be hurting as badly as ever. Five years and there'll be a glimmer of light ahead.

Tom Polak said...

Hi Mark

I just came across this page by accident searching the subject - I'm making a petition to send to my MP in favour of exactly what you are arguing for. Fixed term, four year long Parliaments.

It's only just beginning at the moment with twenty-odd signatures but I would appreciate your support.