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In a fix?

September 13, 2010

In a fix? The latest staging post on the coalition government’s whistle-stop journey of constitutional reform comes today as we debate the Fixed Term Parliament Bill. Much of the press coverage over this legislation concerns the technicalities around votes of confidence, which would trigger a general election before the end of the set fixed term.

The proposal that power should be vested in the Speaker of the day to issue a certificate declaring that parliament had no confidence in the government places the Speakership in a potentially damaging position of partisanship at a critical political juncture. Worse still such certificates would – in the opinion of some constitutional experts – be challengeable in the High Court. In short, at a time of the most acute and sensitive political crisis, the time-critical decision to call an election might be open to legal challenge.

Rather curiously, however, less has been made of the fact that the coalition has chosen five years as the fixed term for a parliament’s duration. It is almost exactly a century since the maximum term was reduced from seven years to five, with the Prime Minister of the day, Asquith, expressly recognising that elections were likely to be called within this time frame.

Indeed generally in UK politics a fixed term tends to be set at four years (think local elections, Mayoral contests, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly terms). If we look at the average time between general elections since World War Two, there have been seventeen elections since the 1945 contest in sixty-five years, so the average tenure of each parliament in this period has been three years and ten months.

Strangely enough even Labour opposition to the longer term has been muted. One need not be too cynical to observe that it is only candidates who really like elections – sitting MPs have potentially too much to lose. For them, perhaps no fixed term is too long!