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The Fixed-Term Parliament Bill would make British politics more legitimate. Really? By Duncan Reynolds

by on September 12, 2011

The Fixed-Term Parliament Bill is currently in “ping-pong” in the Lords and has
been for a number of weeks.  Given this
delay, can it truly be considered a step in the right direction to modernize British politics and ensure
our system of government remains progressively democratic.

As the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Holme reflected, the ability for the incumbent
Prime Minster to call a date of dissolution is like “a race in which the Prime
Minister is allowed to approach it with his running shoes in one hand and his
starting gun in the other” and certainly, since the end of WWII this appears to have occurred on five occasions. (Harold Macmillan in 1959, Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and 1987 and Tony Blair in 2001 and 2005). However, arguably, the advantage of such an ability doesn’t appear to be that significant.

This is exemplified by the case of Harold Macmillan in 1970 who looked again to take
advantage of favourable opinion polls but subsequently suffered a shock general
election defeat. If Blair and Thatcher had had to continue to their full terms
then there is little evidence that the results would have been any different.

This then begs the question; why in their 2010 manifestos were the Liberal Democrats
and Labour so keen to introduce fixed-term parliaments if the advantages were
so minor?

Well, both parties would argue that even if the advantage was minor, it was still illegitimate
on principal to try to gain an advantage. However, the coalition gave the Lib
Dems an even more pressing reason for fixed-terms; If Cameron is unable to call
dissolution on his terms, he would also be unable to oust them from government.

The Fixed-Term Parliament Bill would require MPs from all parties to support it
(two-thirds of the Commons). Seemingly a good idea as it would remove the power
of dissolution, not only on the part of the Prime Minister, but also from the
government as a whole. However, most back-bench MPs would adhere to their party
whips meaning that Parliament would have little power to dissolve as party
leaders would call dissolution and whip their MPs accordingly.

David Cameron expressed his objections to fixed-term parliaments, before the inclusion
of them in the Coalition Agreement, in both “political” and “moral” terms. He
remarked that a “lame-duck government” should not be allowed to carry on with a
small majority for years legitimately under the law, and that a new Prime
Minister should face the public before he or she should have the authority to
govern.

The “moral” argument is seemingly ratified by the British Public when in 2007 42%
of people polled by Ipsos-MORI believed Gordon Brown was wrong not to go to the
nation for legitimacy.

There are further reasons why an early dissolution may be called legitimately. If a
brand new policy has been announced and a government wishes to gain a mandate
for it, then an election is the perfect way to achieve that. Asquith did this
twice in 1910 for the “People’s Budget” (rejected by the Lords) and for the
“Parliament Act” (which ironically limited the power of the House of Lords).

If coalitions were to become the norm rather than the exception in the U.K.,
changes of coalition partners would naturally happen. A general election would
be needed for the public to have faith in the new government and the Fixed-Term
Parliaments Bill would make it harder to call an election for this legitimacy.

The Fixed-Term Parliament Bill certainly has the good intentions of making U.K.
politics more legitimate but I feel that it is a wrong move, with little power
shift, simply denying (or making it very hard) Prime Ministers the ability to
gain legitimacy in other areas where it is needed.

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