There’s something rather cynical about the government’s apparent support for fixed-term parliaments. As with Gordon Brown’s deathbed conversion to electoral reform, it’s all part of Labour’s pre-election “love-bombing” of the Liberal Democrats.
Even so, this reform remains as necessary as ever. The shadow boxing between the parties over the date of the election has too often served as a substitute for real policy debate. And just as Bank of England independence ended the manipulation of interest rates for political purposes, so fixed terms would end the manipulation of the election date.
The Independent’s story reports that Nick Clegg favours the introduction of fixed terms to prevent a second election, at which his party could be badly squeezed, later this year. Someone should tell the Lib Dem leader that there’s no such guarantee.
Fixed terms work well in presidential systems such as France and the US, where the president’s position is not dependent on the support of the legislature.
But in Britain, where the executive and the legislature are merged, the prime minister (as in the case of Jim Callaghan and John Major) struggles to govern without a parliamentary majority.
Callaghan was forced to hold an election after his government lost a vote of no confidence in 1979. There would be nothing to prevent such votes taking place under a fixed-term system, meaning that elections could be held more frequently than every four or five years.
Indeed, in Germany, chancellors such as Helmut Kohl have used “constructive votes of no confidence” to trigger an election at the most convenient moment for the government.
Thus, the only way to ensure genuine fixed-term parliaments is to fully separate the executive from the legislature. As a republican, I’m all in favour of this, but I fear it’s still just a little too bold for this government.