An election date is not a plaything for politicians

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The Independent Online

Sudden speculation about an early general election in this country, perhaps as early as February, bears all the hallmarks of kite-flying. On the face of it, the notion of a February election seems absurd. Why would any government want to launch a campaign when the days are short and the voters still sunk in wintry despondency? Nor have past February elections produced many happy outcomes for the prime ministers that have called them. No, the date we all first thought of - 5 May - generally seems more promising all round.

Sudden speculation about an early general election in this country, perhaps as early as February, bears all the hallmarks of kite-flying. On the face of it, the notion of a February election seems absurd. Why would any government want to launch a campaign when the days are short and the voters still sunk in wintry despondency? Nor have past February elections produced many happy outcomes for the prime ministers that have called them. No, the date we all first thought of - 5 May - generally seems more promising all round.

So what is this flurry all about? It is just possible to conceive of circumstances where a snap election might make sense. Favourable opinion poll trends; a more or less successful election in Iraq before the end of January, the fear that Michael Howard and his Tories might start to get their act together by the spring, several months to go before the Kennedys' baby will be ready to be taken out campaigning ...

The threat of a snap poll, though, makes far better sense. Talk of an imminent election is by far the most effective way to concentrate minds in the party, suppress public dissent and dragoon wayward backbenchers into line. Do they want Labour to win a third term or not? Well, they had better think harder about the policies the party can unite around than the ones they dissent from, and start traipsing around their constituencies spreading the message.

The freedom to choose the timing of a general election gives a British prime minister an extraordinary advantage over the Opposition, and sets him apart from many of his foreign counterparts whose terms are fixed. And it is surely worth asking whether this is not one power too many for a prime minister in a modern democracy.

Certainly, a parliamentary vote of no confidence should force an early election. Whether a prime minister should be able to time his re-election campaign so as to extract maximum advantage is another matter, and one that deserves critical scrutiny - even if it is a prerogative that no government will willingly give up.

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