Opinion Articles

Fixing the General Election date

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 represents the greatest change to our electoral system since universal suffrage was adopted in 1918. It abolishes our traditional system of general election timing based on the Crown's common law power to dissolve and summon Parliament: no longer will a Prime Minister be able to call an election at a time of his or her choosing.

The first serious attempt to limit royal control over calling Parliament came after Charles I governed without Parliament for 11 years. The Triennial Act 1641 required Parliament to be called (and an election held) within three years of a dissolution, providing for other officials to act if the monarch did not. Unsurprisingly, this was repealed in 1664.

On the second attempt, the Bill of Rights 1688 authorised taxation, expenditure and armed forces on an annual basis only. These limits have been observed ever since, and required the King to call Parliament each year. The Triennial Act 1694 then limited Parliament's duration to three years.

This was extended to seven years in 1716, to stabilise the government's programme. There were frequent attempts to change this, generally to three years. In 1734, three year Parliaments were rejected by MPs. The Chartists agitated for annual Parliaments. In 1903, Keir Hardie called for three year Parliaments.

The 1911 reduction to five years was triggered by a political crisis - the conflict between the government and the House of Lords over the People's Budget. The Parliament Act replaced the Lords' legislative veto with a delaying power, but balanced this with shorter Parliaments - aiming to produce Parliaments of four years on average, as Herbert Asquith told MPs.

The 2011 statute fixes the date of the next general election on 7 May 2015 and at five yearly elections thereafter. It abolishes the prerogative power of the monarch to dissolve Parliament, and replaces it with two statutory events when a dissolution (and election) may occur -

  • a positive vote for an election by two-thirds of the membership of the House of Commons.
  • a No Confidence resolution being passed in the House of Commons, and no new prime minister and government being formally endorsed by a vote of confidence in the Commons within 14 days.


The change is largely being introduced for party-political reasons. Few will doubt that the motivation behind this Act, and the way it was driven through in the first session of this Parliament, was principally to preserve the Coalition at the maximum length possible, rather than determine the ideal length between general elections.

It seems clear that a majority in both Houses in fact supported four, rather than five, years as the most appropriate interval. But the Coalition wanted the longest period in office they could achieve in which to tackle the current economic crisis before returning to face the electorate at the polls.

Establishing fixed intervals between elections is a good idea, but the government has taken it too far. Five year Parliaments are too long, and the threshold for triggering an early election is too high. There is an imbalance in the Act between competing interests - entrenching the position of the executive, and securing its democratic accountability to Parliament and the electorate.

On the five year fixed term, almost everyone believes this is too long. Four-year Parliaments have been the average in recent times, and gel with British political culture and expectations. There is some irony in the government saying it wishes the public to become more engaged in politics, whilst at the same time making the central democratic act in the life of the nation less frequent.

Virtually all fixed-term Parliament arrangements recognise that there must be some procedure for an early election in emergency circumstances. The positive vote procedure by two-thirds of the House, laid down in the Act, will usually require the agreement of both government and opposition. This special voting procedure is unprecedented at Westminster.

A No Confidence motion as codified in the Act, and its effect of triggering an election unless an alternative government is formed and voted on within 14 days, is a more likely scenario, particularly where there is a minority government (such as James Callaghan's Labour administration in 1979) in office. Governments could exploit this procedure to force an election by arranging for a motion to be put in the Commons, then having government MPs abstain.

My preferred approach would be that the fixed period between general elections was four years, consistent with existing normal practice and the average duration of a Parliament over the past 100 years. I would have preferred also that the Commons determine whether an early election takes place, by a simple majority motion, which is then transmitted by the Prime Minister to the monarch. To deter a governing majority from forcing an early election at a politically convenient time, my preferred measure would have then provided that the duration of the Parliament following the early election was equivalent to the remainder of the term of the Parliament in which the resolution takes place - in other words, that the previously scheduled election go ahead anyway, maintaining the electoral cycle.

Rationally, the structural basis upon which general election timing occurs - the theory of the Crown and royal prerogative - needs to be replaced by a constitution that provides for the continuing life of Parliament, rather than being is periodically dissolved and summoned. During an election campaign, no Parliament is in existence, so that if an emergency did arise, including one making it impracticable to hold an election, there is no legal process for restoring former MPs, and there would be no representative body to hold government to account.

Under a permanent Parliament, there would be a period of recess during the election campaign and existing Members could always be reconvened at any time if necessary. Elections would take place at four-yearly intervals, and then on a prescribed date following the date of the poll, newly-elected Members would take the place those who had stood down or been defeated.

However, a continuing Parliament would only be workable as part of a written constitution - a constitutional issue of much larger dimensions than even setting the date of a general election.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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