Ed Miliband made a disgraceful U-turn last week. No one noticed, because it was announced by Stephen Twigg, shadow constitutional affairs minister and one of the nicest MPs, and he was speaking on a quiet day in the House of Commons.
MPs were debating a backbench motion to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. It was tabled by Sir Edward Leigh, a Conservative, and Frank Field, Labour, and had no chance of succeeding, but it required a response from Labour’s front bench. Thus Twigg had to set out Labour’s official policy on the subject.
Sir Edward doesn’t agree with fixed-term parliaments on principle. He and Field want to go back to the old system by which the prime minister advises the monarch when parliament should be dissolved. They have a point. Fixed terms are one of those fashionable so-called democratic reforms that end up doing more harm than good. (The other example is the power of recall, another American import that sounds good but which is actually undemocratic: we have a power of recall already – it is called a general election; the right to petition for a by-election is an invitation to opponents of MPs repeatedly to re-run their elections.)
Supporters of fixed terms, such as Graham Allen, the Labour MP, think they take power away from the government and the prime minister to hold elections when it suits them. In fact, as Robert Syms, a Tory MP, put it in the debate, the power to call an election is often a “poisoned chalice for a prime minister”. It didn’t do James Callaghan any good in 1978-79 and it was a disaster for Gordon Brown in 2007.
More importantly, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act hasn’t really fixed the parliamentary term. According to Sir Edward, David Cameron had explained to him that the coalition could not be ended because “the Leader of the Opposition might be in power by teatime”. Actually, if the coalition were to collapse, it would be unlikely that Miliband would be able to put together an alternative arrangement that would secure a majority in the Commons. In which case, the Act allows two weeks for negotiations after which there would be an election anyway.
What the Act has done, however, is to turn the maximum time between elections – five years – into the normal time. Before the Act came in, the assumption was that a parliament would run for four years, unless a government feared that it would be defeated, in which case it would hold on in the hope that something would turn up. Which it did when John Major soldiered on to 1992, but it didn’t when he stayed on until 1997, or when Gordon Brown went on until 2010. That was why Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who advocated fixed terms in their manifestos last time, wanted them to be fixed at four years.
When the Conservatives and Lib Dems negotiated the terms of the coalition after the 2010 election, legislation for fixed terms was part of the deal from the start, as part of the guarantee of the coalition’s stability. But it was assumed that the fixed term would be four years until late in the talks when George Osborne had a light-bulb moment, and, without saying anything, leaned in and crossed out “four” and wrote “five” in the draft coalition agreement. He looked round the meeting and all the Tory and Lib Dem negotiators smiled and nodded.
When the Bill came to be debated, in 2011, Charles Falconer, for Labour, opposed the five-year period and argued that it should be four years. He was quite right. Five years, as the norm, is too long. But last week, Labour changed its policy. “There is a good case,” said Twigg, “that a term of five years can have a stabilising effect on our politics, ensuring that governments can make some important strategic and long-term decisions in the national interest, so I think it is right that we allow the five-year fixed-term parliament to bed in.”
Sir Edward wanted to make sure of Labour’s position: “So if Labour gets an overall majority, it will not repeal the Act and it will stay in for the full five years?”
Twigg replied: “Absolutely.”
So, there it is. Labour was in favour of four-year parliaments while a period of opposition stretched before it but now, as the election approaches and the bookies give it a 50-50 chance of being in government again, Miliband has decided that five-year parliaments might give him the chance to make “long-term decisions in the national interest”.
If we are going to have fixed-term parliaments, they should be four years rather than five. The average term since the war has been three years and 10 months, and trying to make that longer is in my view a diminution of democracy. Not least because all three main parties have now quietly settled on five years without open debate. Miliband and Twigg should be summoned to the bar of public opinion to explain themselves.
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