What impact will fixed-term parliaments have?

One of the significant reforms announced in last night’s coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was to have a fixed-term parliament. So the next British election will be the first Thursday in May 2015.  It is not clear if this is just an indication by the party leaders that they intend to serve for a full term, just as Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney had done here, or something more. If it’s just indicating an intention, this might be a good confidence building measure that should reduce tensions.

Or, as it’s billed as a reform, it might be a constitutional change which will have the force of law. Will it disallow a prime minister from dissolving parliament (or request its dissolution)? The threat to call an election is an important tool in the PM’s armoury, one that John Major used explicitly to good effect in forcing the Maastricht Treaty past his sceptical party.  Election timing also becomes something of a strategic tool for the PM to gain electoral advantage – though there’s limited evidence that it has any great effect. Now it could be that the right to call an election transfers to parliament, which would weaken the PM but may not do much else.

But if no one is allowed call an election, moving to a fixed-term parliament could lead to legislative gridlock and an inability to deal with new crises. What if this government splits on a new issue that we cannot now foresee? The government loses the confidence of parliament. In the absence of parliament’s ability to form a new government without recourse to an election, a minority  government could be forced to limp on until the fixed-term ends. An election on such an unforeseen issue might be the most democratic and effective way to deal with such a crisis.  That could be impossible under a fixed-term parliament.

Addition: Here’s the text of the agreement. “The parties agree to the establishment of five-year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed-term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”

There are many complaints about the specification that 55 percent is needed rather than a simple majority. It is assumed that this is a ruse by the Tories to ensure that they can head up a minority government in the case of the LibDems pulling out.

The Tories would effectively be free to head up a minority government without the 55 percent rule. The only way they could head up one is with the support of another party on a case-by-case or more permanent arrangement. So we’d presumably expect that if the Tories wanted to have a minority government they would have to have some arrangement of support in order to get legislation through parliament.

While there is the possibility of a government with no support having to limp to the end of the parliamentary term, it should be easy to achieve the 55 percent needed to call an election. The fear that it’s a Tory conspiracy is misplaced.

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6 thoughts on “What impact will fixed-term parliaments have?

  1. @eoin
    I would find it very helpful is if you (or anyone other person reading this site) could provide a reference/link to the academic political science literature or some other authoritiative source (eg. the InterParliamentary Union) which sets out
    1) those countries (either with 27 EU members states or the members states of the OECD) which have a fixed term parliament;
    2) the length of the fixed term;
    3) the electoral system used in each country;
    4) how casual vacancies in Parliament(arising from death, resignation etc) are filled;
    5) other checks and balances on power (eg. written constitution, constitutional court, administrative courts, citizens initiative) in those countries that have fixed term parliaments

    From general knowledge, I gather that
    1) FRGermany (at federal level – not sure about the Land level) has a four year fixed term parliament;
    2) French President now has a five year term;
    3) So too do two EU institutions (Parliament, Commission)
    4) The EU Council of Ministers is forever varying, depending as it does on those in power in each member state (a kind of check and balance on the Commission?).
    5) the situation on US federal elections
    President – a fixed four year term limited to two terms (or is it only two terms in succession?),
    Congress (all seats every two years? – with no term limits),
    Senate( one-third of seats up for election every two years, with no term limits).

    • I don’t know of any single source on all these issues. The IPU tends not to give that much detail. Probably the best book that might give you, if not all this detail, at least a good idea of where to find this information is Strom, Muller and Bergman (2003) Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies Oxford: OUP.

  2. The recently published Elections in Europe by Dieter Nohlen and Philip Stover has all (or pretty close to) of this information. It’s published in Germany by Nomos and is 169 euro so you might be better placed checking if the TCD library has it

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