The UK is having what might be called a constitutional moment. In the wake of the Scottish referendum and after nearly five years of coalition government, the fundamental rules of the political game are up for negotiation.
That includes the unelected House of Lords and the lack of a single written constitution. It also includes electoral rules, such as the laws regulating when elections must be held.
This provides an opportunity to think about a relatively recent change to the law. Until the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, elections had to be held every five years but the Prime Minister had discretion to call one at any time before that deadline.
The 2011 act brought an end to that discretion and now elections are only held at the end of the five year period (unless two-thirds of parliament support early dissolution or there is a vote of no confidence). This, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government argued, would make for a more stable government.
And indeed, it does seem that elections were often called in the past for partisan advantage. In fact 60% of the UK’s post-war elections were called more than six months before the five-year deadline. Analysis suggests that this gave incumbents a 6% vote gain, roughly doubling the chances of the incumbent Prime Minister remaining in office. Had Gordon Brown called an election in 2007 or 2008, Labour may have fared better than it did in 2010.
Not only do fixed-term parliaments stop Prime Ministers from calling elections opportunistically, they also prevent them from using the threat of an election to bully backbench MPs or coalition partners.
But, while giving the Prime Minister discretion over the timing of elections is undesirable for many reasons, the advantages of fixed terms shouldn’t be exaggerated either.
A fixed term might prevent an election from being called at an opportune moment, such as when economic growth is strong and the government looks successful, but there is still a danger that the government may pursue economic policies designed to ensure a boom at the time of the next election. Even if the policies in question are not the best long-term plan, the government may push ahead with them for a short-term gain that could secure another term. So incumbent governments continue to enjoy certain advantages over the opposition, even if they can’t control how long a parliament lasts.
It has also been argued that the constant threat of a surprise election is good for democracy. Opposition parties have to maintain a certain level of campaign-readiness if they face an election at any time. That makes them more active in holding the government to account.
If the opposition knows there won’t be another election for four or five years, they have less incentive to make trouble for the government in the first few years. They may be more concerned with internal issues, such as leadership contests, rather than setting out a credible alternative to government policy.
Stick and twist
A better system would be to make election timings somewhat unpredictable, forcing all parties to be election-ready, but without giving control over election timing to any partisan individual. An impartial individual could be given control over when elections happen – although it would of course be difficult to avoid favouritism.
Another possibility would be to have a random device to determine whether an election should occur at a given moment in time. A number from one to 10 could be generated at the beginning of each year and if it is a one, an election would be held that year. If it is any other number from two to 10, no election would be held that year. That would mean there would be a one in 10 chance of an election happening in any given year. It would of course also mean that some governments last only a year and others last much longer.
In this scenario, the chance of a number one not being drawn five times in a row is 60%, which would make a long parliament more likely than annual elections. The exact numbers are not my concern here, though, so much as the principle.
All this is not to say that fixed-term parliaments are a bad thing. Perhaps it’s good to allow parties to step back from constant election readiness in order to see their plans through properly while in government. But it is worth remembering that there are more than two options.
It doesn’t have to be a matter of sticking with fixed terms or returning to the old system. If we value both impartiality and unpredictability, there are ways to have both. It might seem radical to propose randomly selecting an election time but lotteries actually have a long democratic history. And, if we are to make the most of this constitutional moment, we should be prepared to consider even radical proposals.