You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Why our politics could be in chaos after the next election

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The Independent Online

A constitutional revolution takes place before our eyes and we hardly notice. There is much noise and fury about constitutional changes that will never happen - and near-silence in response to a radical reform that is already implemented.

Let us briefly address the noise and fury. David Cameron hopes to negotiate changes to the free movement of labour within the EU. The proposal does not have the support of a single additional member. Therefore we can safely assert that the proposal will not be implemented while we remain in the EU, which I expect us to do even if there is a referendum on the issue. Yet the noise and fury around his unrealistic negotiation will persist for years.

Separately, a row erupts over whether English MPs alone should vote on legislation that appears to impact solely on England. There is no clear way ahead, even if a parliamentary majority could be secured for one particular subjective answer to the English question. Do not expect that change to happen, but be prepared for raging debate over it for some time to come.

The pattern is familiar when it comes to constitutional reform. Parties split, and leaders fall over changes that never happen. At one point in the 1990s MPs sweated over the constitutional implications of a referendum on the Euro. The referendum was never held. I can recall two seemingly explosive referendums in relation to electoral reform. One was never held. The other did take place and the proposal to change the voting system was heavily defeated amid waves of indifference.

In the meantime a revolution is unleashed quietly. The constitutional revolution takes the form of fixed-term parliaments, one of the many radical reforms rushed through in the early days of the Coalition. From welfare to the NHS the coalition of largely inexperienced ministers moved at such a pace that it was difficult to keep up - for them and for us. If Cameron did not know much about what his Health Secretary was planning to do to the NHS perhaps it is not surprising that the sweeping implications of fixed-term parliaments attracted little attention. The reform has already transformed the dynamics of politics, and will have an even more dramatic impact on what follows next year’s election.

The current relatively stable parliament is well beyond its sell-by-date. There is no legislation of significance being passed. Huge, urgent issues need addressing, but this parliament is incapable of dealing with them. Yet it is legally obliged to keep going until next May.

When a Prime Minister was in a commanding enough position to choose, he or she opted for four-year parliaments. This one staggers on for five because it has to.Tory MPs have too much time on their hands and have been in that position since the first couple of busy legislative sessions. Waiting until a scheduled distant election they got frustrated and plotted.

The fixed-term parliament act has made restive Conservative MPs even harder for the leadership to control. Labour has struggled too. By the end of the first year of this parliament, the media was demanding to know whether early policy announcements would apply at the next election. But at that point the next election was four years away, the equivalent of several marathons still to run. At times Labour’s leadership has agonised as much about when to make an announcement as it has over what form the announcement should take.

All of these changes are trivial compared with what might erupt in the next parliament. Polls suggest the outcome of the next election could be close, making the negotiations for a coalition complex. As an added complication there could be two leadership contests after the election. Both Cameron and Ed Miliband could move on, voluntarily or not. If the Liberal Democrats suffer badly Nick Clegg could well go too.

The historian AJP Taylor used to argue that railway timetables accidentally played a big part in the origins of the First World War. The timetables of leadership contests could well be an accidental pivotal factor in the immediate aftermath of the election. Modern leadership contests take months before a new leader is elected. The frenzied culture of British politics demands that a new government is in place within days of an election. In both February 1974 and 2010, the two post-war hung parliaments, a new Prime Minister was waving outside Number 10 by the Monday evening, just four days after the election. How does the leadership of one party negotiate with another that is staging a lengthy leadership contest?

The next parliament might be formed of bewildered Conservative and Labour parties, neither with an overall majority, a smaller Liberal Democrat party and lots of others asserting their new parliamentary muscularity. This unstable assembly of parties would almost certainly have to solider on for five years.

Under the fixed-term parliament act, two-thirds of MPs must support an early election. It is unlikely that two thirds of a fractured Commons would all reach the conclusion at the same time that they would flourish if there were an early election. In which case there will be no such election however wildly eccentric the parliamentary arrangements become.

As some right-wing Conservative MPs have noted to their alarm, the fixed-term parliament act places huge pressure on leaders to form a coalition rather than a single party minority government that could call another election quickly. Yet even a two- or three-party coalition would struggle to survive for five years’ next time, even if one was formed before, during or after various leadership contests.

Imagine if there is another Con/Lib coalition. What would be its fate beyond a 2017 referendum on Europe when the build-up and the outcome are bound to destabilise one of the two parties, perhaps both? Because of the fixed-term parliament act, the Coalition would be expected to govern effectively for another three years afterwards.

Now we wonder how Cameron will end free movement of labour in an EU that is committed to such freedom, and how he will answer the English question when it has remained unanswered for decades. Yet the Prime Minister chose to address one question that no one had asked. Should the UK have a fixed term parliament? He said Yes and it transforms British politics.