There seems to be a lot of resentment towards the Government’s plan to introduce a requirement for an agreement by 55% of MPs to dissolve Parliament before the end of their planned fixed term Parliaments.
Firstly, having a fixed term Parliament is a good thing. It removes the decision of when a General Election happens from the Prime Minister. Currently as it stands the Prime Minister can choose a time that suits him to hold a General Election, thus maximising his or her chances of remaining in power for up to another 5 years. Had Gordon Brown gone to the country in 2007 when he became Prime Minister and when his popularity was at its highest it is probable that he would have won that election, and thus we would have been stuck with Labour and Gordon Brown until at least 2012. It means that the authorities responsible for administering General Elections can plan better and may be able to avoid some of the catastrophes that we’ve previously seen. It means the Government can properly plan out it’s legislative programme rather than fitting everything into the first three years to make sure you get everything done in case the Prime Minister decided to hold an early General Election then spinning the last two years out with rubbish.
Many European Countries have fixed term parliaments and they work quite well. The devolved administrations in the UK work on a fixed-term basis. The Scottish Parliament for example is fixed to a four year term.
A lot of the objections towards the 55% dissolution proposal by the Government surround issues which fit better into a debate about a vote of no confidence. It is important to realise that the two are distinct. The Government is proposing to remain the vote of no confidence threshold as it is (i.e. 50% + 1MP). So, if 326 MPs vote “aye” in a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government then the Government loses the confidence of the House and another Government needs to be formed. In such a situation Labour and the Liberal Democrats could try and negotiate a minority Government backed up with the support of the smaller parties, the Conservatives could try to form a minority Government and the other possible combinations that were discussed prior to the formation of the current Coalition could be explored. If no Government could be formed then a vote to dissolve Parliament would be held and here there would, with little doubt, be more than 55% of MPs voting in favour of dissolution. However, if another Government could be formed that commands the confidence on the House then they would have the right to govern until the end of the fixed-term parliament or until such times as they lose the confidence of the House of Commons (which ever comes first).
In the Scottish Parliament there must be a two thirds majority in favour of dissolving Parliament prior to the next scheduled General Election to the Scottish Parliament. This is a significantly larger percentage than the current coalition Government is requesting.
Requiring a percentage of more than 50% + 1 to dissolve Parliament does not mean that a Government that has lost the Confidence of the Commons can remain in power. Providing that the Act of Parliament introducing this change is drafted correctly and sets out time scales for how long the House has to try and form a new Government that commands the confidence of the House of Commons before a vote of dissolving Parliament must be held; then there is no reason why it cannot work.
Personally, I if I were introducing these changes then I would be looking to give the House three weeks from the successful vote of no confidence to try and form a Government that commands the Confidence of the House prior to there having to be a vote on the question of dissolving Parliament early.
The concept is an alien one here in the UK because we’re not used to it, but it is not, as some have suggested, an undemocratic proposals. It makes Parliament much more stable, particularly in situations of a coalition Government (a situation we will have more often if our electoral system is changed from First Past the Post).
On the whole I am very excited about the constitutional changes planned by the Government, and if implemented correctly, will put us in a far better situation than we are at the moment. In fact, much of what is planned appears in the draft constitution that I wrote a few years back setting out how I would like to see our political system operating.