Fixed term parliaments to be revisited?

Democratic Audit UK has a good discussion of the issue of fixed terms for the UK House of Commons, which were legislated by the current coalition government that took power following the 2010 election. A group of Tory backbenchers has proposed doing away with the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

With a single-party majority in 2015 looking unlikely, it is not surprising that many Conservatives would prefer a return to the old pattern whereby a minority single-party government would just bide its time till things looked promising for going to the polls and potentially securing a parliamentary majority. (As I have noted in the recent past, there are such attitudes present in Labour Party quarters, as well.)

Arguments given by supporters of repeal are that MPs are more accountable when elections could come at any time and (predictably, given the source) that fixed terms give the junior partner in a coalition too much power. In the event of a future coalition, the supporters of repeal suggest there could be a “gentleman’s agreement” that the coalition should end only when both parties wish it to end. (Isn’t that precisely that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was for? To make sure the “gentlemen” could mutually police their agreement?)

Democratic Audit’s editorial offers a series of reasons why keeping fixed terms is preferable. This was a matter that was discussed in a couple of threads here (#1, #2) at the time. What do readers think now?

58 thoughts on “Fixed term parliaments to be revisited?

  1. Personally, I think that fixed terms offer MPs more independence, considering that the PM can’t (threaten to) call an election to enforce party discipline – yes, without fixed terms MPs are more accountable, but it’s mostly more accountable to party leaders. Most importantly, this means governments no longer have recourse to the ultimate weapon of party discipline, namely making a vote on a bill a confidence vote. I am generally in favour of parliamentarism, but to me, that specific possibility, where available, puts too much legislative power in the hands of the executive.

    I was surprised that you didn’t mention a different argument against the current fixed-term parliament act, namely that the term is too long. To that I would have said that I’m sympathetic to the idea of having longer terms, if they indeed do promote more long-term thinking among politicians.

  2. Not a fan of the fixed-terms in a parliamentary system. I’m all for party government and, therefore, party discipline, and I like the disciplining power of early elections. It works both ways – parties can remove leaders as well.

  3. Does the UK want to be like Norway where there are no early elections? Or would it rather be like Sweden where there can be extra elections if the need arises? Perhaps it would be better to be like NZ and have a short 3 year term (5 years is a long time), but let the government call elections any time, but NZ has de-facto fixed term elections and almost never has early elections because of the short term of 3 years.

    Parliamentarianism isn’t contingent whether their are fixed terms, or unfixed terms, or semi fixed in the case of Australia with it’s unfixed House, and fixed Senate. The U.S has short terms for Congress only 2 years, but then the U.S is not a parliamentary democracy.

  4. I support foxed terms for the reasons that JD advances. reducing the power of party leaders is by no means reducing the power of parties themselves, so Mike T’s comment is unpersuasive.

    The experience of fixed term parliaments in the Australian stars is not really long enough to draw conclusions, except that the media and the extreme right became almost hysterical in demanding en early election, despite its constitutional impossibility, in New South Wales. After the ghastly experience of the federal opposition demanding an early election for the entire term of the 43rdParliament, I’d say fixed term parliaments should increase the quality of debate.

    I think this incident is an excellent argument for the UK to adopt at least a partially entrenched constitution.

    Let us imagine, for the sake of comparison, that an Unfixed Terms Amendment had been passed in the US by the senate, the house, and 3/4 of the state legislatures and that a group of members of congress had now decided to repeal the UFTA. What would their prospects be?

    The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 would be a constitutional amendment in almost every other country on the planet. It was passed on a party vote, in a fairly short time, without and legislative pre-scrutiny and, most importantly, without any previous notice to the electorate. A faction of the Conservative party now hopes to revoke this constitutional amendment for reasons that benefit only their own party. This is is neither an accountable not a sensible way to make amendments to a constitution, written or unwritten.

    It seems to me the minimum principle consistent with democracy and accountability is that it takes a supermajority in both houses to amend the constitution, that an entrenching law should be passed by at least the majority it seeks to entrench and that some notice be given to the electorate.

    • It seems that any attempt to discuss fixed term parliaments for the federal Parliament will be poisoned by NSW Labor in 2011, much in the same way that any discussion of proportional representation in the UK is poisoned by Weimar. The attacking of fixed term parliaments by bringing up NSW Labor is patently daft, as the NSW government would have delayed any election as long as they could, as even they knew that no clever election timing could save them.

      • Strange, I’ve not really heard Weimar mentioned in the UK electoral reform debate. Usually Italy and Israel are the cases mentioned.

      • The English are a peculiar people in being oppose to proportional representation. What was the main reason why PR was rejected in the UK as almost all European countries embraced PR before, during, and after World War 1? As long as it is a moderate system of PR; Ireland does well with STV, NZ does great with MMP, and Australia is fine with STV in it’s upper house. No new democracy chooses FPTP as it’s electoral system, almost all chose some form of PR.

      • Rob, there are a number of reasons. First, both large political parties in the UK support FPTP over PR, and will do so for a long time. The Labour Party supports it because it squashes any centre-left alternative, while the Conservatives support it because the split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats has kept them in power. Second, the electoral reform debate in the UK is controlled by those who oppose PR, with the Daily Mail leading the FPTP cheer squad. Third, the Single Transferable Vote (which is supposedly ‘confusing’) is the only alternative to FPTP, but the anti-PR media print any election result that makes PR look bad, and describe it as PR, which confuses the debate. Fourth, the obsession with ‘traditionalism’ by some in the British government, which not only keeps PR down, but also stops reforms such as fixed term parliaments and recall.

        JD, the talk of Weimar is more ‘dark murmurings’ than any obvious mention, but after World War 2, at least one anti-PR book were written that attempted to equate party list PR’s characteristics with decline into authoritarianism using post World War 1 examples.

      • Rob, you make a number of generalisations there. No, the English are not the only people among whom opposition to PR is prevalent (Just look across the pond for another example, as well as my upcoming post on Burma). Countries ‘doing well’ with one system or the other is very subjective, just as the question of what one should look for in a system is deeply subjective. And if you’d go by the standards of those suspicious of PR, some examples of other countries is not going to cut it – you’d have to argue why PR would work ‘well’ in the UK. And I think that’s rather more difficult, particularly considering the way British politics is fragmenting right now. As to new democracies’ electoral system choice, there have not been so many examples of straightforward FPTP, but there have been plenty of non-PR systems (mostly mixed-member majoritarian).

      • Before the 2011 election in New South Wales was almost impossible to open a news paper or switch on a radio or TV without reading or hearing demands for the governor to call an unconstitutional early election.

        Now that time has smoothed away the passions of 2010, I think it is worth noting that no-one in NSW, from premier to shockjock, has ever mentioned repealing the fixed terms amendment to the NSW constitution since the 2011 general election.

        Repeal would require a referendum, unlike the UK legislation, and I seriously doubt it would pass.

    • The Scandinavian method is an absolute majority to propose an constitutional amendment + an election, so voters can have a say + another absolute majority to ratify the amendment or a referendum held at the same time as a general election.

    • I am not sure about Alan’s observation that an act mandating fixed terms “would be a constitutional amendment in almost every other country on the planet”. Intuitively, I would agree. However, Canada has an entrenched constitution and a recent move to fixed terms, and several provinces have done the same. The Parliament of Canada has a useful summary.

      Note that at the federal level in Canada, the adoption of fixed terms was indeed accompanied by a reduction in the term length, given that the constitution prescribes a maximum term of five years.

      • It should be noted that Canada’s “fixed election dates” are non-binding. The Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the law does not prevent the Prime Minister from requesting that the Governor-General dissolve Parliament and call elections, nor does it prevent the G-G from following such advice. And even if it did so, the PM could still easily engineer a defeat of the government on a confidence motion, triggering an election.

        It’s my impression that the UK law is different, being binding while the government holds the confidence of Parliament.

      • It seems odd that Canada wants to have fixed terms when the U.S has them, and this leads to a very long election cycle of campaigns. Does fixed terms lead to longer election campaigns compared to unfixed terms legislatures?

  5. Rob, I suspect one of the reasons NZ doesn’t see more snap electins that it wouldn’t change much, except at the margins. But with an FPTP system the reward in transforming a poll lead into a disproportionate majority is worth the risk.

      • Yes.

        Snap elections are also much more common in non-fixed term IRV parliaments in Australia than in PR parliaments in either country.

      • Actually, looking at the dates of the elections from 1902 onwards, I can see very few elections that might have been early: 1938 (October) 1943 (September), 1951 (September) and 1984 (July – Muldoon’s snap election). That compares with only one under MMP: 2002 (July). For the FPTP years therefore, the proportion is 4/30 or 13.3%, with 1/7 or 14.3% for MMP. It would seem that so far, snap elections have been about as common under either system.

      • I guess it depends on the definition of “snap”. As JD notes, there were a few early elections under FPTP and there has been only one that clearly qualifies under MMP. However, most of these were early by a matter of a few months.

        Clearly we need an index of snappiness!

      • Bear in mind that with a 3-year term, an election does not need to be very early before it cuts out a significant fraction of the parliamentary rem and that there is no very clear distinction between ‘snap election’ and ‘early election’.

        If anything the index of snappiness would have to be as much about the length of the campaign as the earliness of the date. The advantage tends to be seen as taking the opposition by surprise but it can equally be getting the election over before certain unpleasant facts or truths become known.

  6. The UK came very close to adopting PR in 1918, and it was a really a random bounce of history that kept around single member plurality. As to the antipathy to PR, among the English there is a much stronger conservative/ traditionalist streak compared to other Western countries (though I would argue that this streak is even stronger in America) and these things are often irrational.

    My not entirely rational view of parliamentary terms is that there should be a minimum and maximum length for legislative terms, but the government should have a window of a few months to move around the election date. While that does give them an electoral advantage, unless voter sentiment is really so fickle as to change completely in a few months (and that is the sort of situation where any electoral system looks bad), this will be more likely used to schedule around natural disasters, moving holidays, etc.

    If no party has a majority of seats in the legislature in a parliamentary system, and the governing coalition falls apart, there is no reason why a different coalition can’t be patched together for the rest of the term, or the original coalition partners resolve their differences, or in the worst case scenario, the head of state appoints a technocrat from outside the party system as chief minister and dares the parties to come together to vote no confidence in him or her.

    One thing I didn’t know is that in the UK the Liberal Democrats were behind the fixed election acts. This was pretty clever of them, because the decline in support for the Liberal Democrats after entering the coalition was quite predictable (a point most commentators forget); other than undercutting the identity they had built up recently as a left-of-center party, support for the Liberals also cratered during the 1977-78 Lib Lab agreement, the 1951 arrangement with the Conservatives, and the 1929-31 Lib Lab arrangement and 1931-2 participation in the National Government, the 1924 Lib Lab arrangement, the 1915-22 coalition with the Conservatives -basically every single time the party has entered into some sort of deal with Labor or the Tories as a junior partner. So a situation where Lib Dem standings collapse in the polls but the Tory vote rises enough to make it tempting for the Tories to call a new election and get a majority was predicable and the fixed terms act countered that, though in the event polls have consistently shown that Labor would get a majority in any new election since the present coalition began.

    • Wouldn’t it be funny if the Conservatives lost the election to Labor due to a reverse plurality and then would they be interested in changing the electoral system?

      • The Conservatives lost the first of the two 1974 elections to Labor on a reverse plurality and did become interested in changing the electoral system for awhile.

        One example I forgot to mention was Chretien’s snap election in Canada in 2000, which seems to have been done not so much to wrongfoot the opposition parties, but to wrongfoot his opponents in the Liberal Party, which were trying to remove him.

        Alan has a good point is that fixed terms do force the media to write about other subjects than “when will the PM call the next election.”

  7. Whether a parliamentary democracy has snap elections or not, it is still parliamentarian as the lower house has the power to appoint and remove the prime minister. Is there any Presidential democracies that have unfixed terms?

    • Namibia and Zambia both have unfixed terms. In both countries a president who dissolves the assembly must face an early presidential, as well as legislative, election. Both countries also empower the assembly to dissolve itself by supermajority.

      Perhaps the US would benefit more from early elections than biennial congressional elections.

    • By the common definition, it is not a presidential system if early elections can be called. However, mutual trigger provisions (requiring early elections for both head of government and the assembly if there will be for one) feels like less a departure from the prevailing norms of presidential (separation-of-powers) systems than does allowing either to dismiss the other without putting itself in jeopardy.

      John Carey and I discussed these issues at some length in Presidents and Assemblies (1992).

      • Yes, it’s also where I looked – it seems that both Argentina and Chile had a presidential dissolution power, at least for a short while in the 80’s and 90’s. Besides those two isolated cases, dissolution powers seem to be restricted to semi-presidential cases.

        I can understand how dissolution powers would undermine separate survival, but what would you call a presidential system with such a power? Semi-presidential is really something else, with a responsible PM and cabinet.

  8. I do not remember such a provision in Argentina, but Chile’s 1980 constitution allowed for the president to dissolve the congress. However, this provision was negotiated out of the constitution as part of the package of amendments enacted between the plebiscite in 1988 and the first democratic election in 1989 (which, I am sorry to say, escaped my attention at the time of preparing Presidents and Assemblies).

    I don’t have a good name for this combination. “Fused-survival presidential”? (There must be something better.)

      • Demi-presidentialism? The system seems to me to have many advantages. The legislators can actually legislate, rather than act as mere panegyrists for the executive. The executive can apply a certain discipline to legislative behaviour without acquiring the overwhelming disciplinary powers of a prime minister. The failure of the elected PM model in Israel can be avoided.

        Both Namibia and Zambia have floating terms. A quick review of the country listings at EISA shows no other cases of demi-presdientialism although many Francophone African presidents can dissolve without themselves facing an early election.

        I'd probably be most enthusiastic for demi-presidentialism with fixed terms, i.e. a president and parliament returned at an early election serve the remainder of the term of the previous presidency and parliament.

      • Except for Benin, the Francophone African systems (at least those generally considered democratic) are semi-presidential; i.e. they have a PM responsible to the assembly majority. Dissolution powers, without affecting the tenure of the head of state, are common in such systems, as in France itself.

      • Perhaps unilateral and bilateral dissolution would be more felicitous than echoing the world of Dr Strangelove.

    • I meant the more common variety of dissolution as well. I think that whatever label is chosen, it should still be counted as a variant of presidentialism, with the main definitions still focused on cabinet responsibility.

  9. There are three options. Unilateral dissolution. Bilateral dissolution where the president can dissolve but only at the cost of an early presidential election, and equilateral dissolution where either the president or the legislature can force an early executive and legislative election. You’d then need to look at whether the new president and parliament would serve a full term or follow the Swedish rule.

    Meanwhile I am slowly working my way through the 57 member states of la Francophonie…

    • See MSS’s answer above… And, no, Benin doesn’t have a presidential dissolution power, at least according to the IPU.

      After a brief search, I can add the following to the pure-presidential-with-dissolution column: Kenya seems to have had such a provision under the previous constitution, though not the current one. (Here I was going to add Tanzania, which has bilateral dissolution, but turns out to be semi-presidential. I could find no other examples, having checked Checking Cameroon, The Gambia, Uganda, Malawi and Ghana.)

      Interesting. Somehow I was convinced that dissolution powers were more common among otherwise pure presidential systems. Maybe that used to be the case sometime in the past?

      • Djibouti is listed as presidential at I have not yet found a presidential Francophone country that has any form of dissolution. Namibia and Zambia remain on their own as cases of presidentialism with bilateral dissolution. There may be 1 or 2 others in southern and eastern Africa. I’ll let you know if and when I find any.

      • I recall Malawi having dissolution power in the past. I can’t think of another system where the president is head of government and has (or had) dissolution power that was non-mutual.

        Is it a certainty that terms are not fixed in Zambia? I thought they were.

  10. Constitution of Zambia as amended 2009, Article 88
    6. Subject to clause (9) the National Assembly—
    a. shall, unless sooner dissolved, continue for five years from the date of its first sitting after the commencement of this Constitution or after any dissolution and shall then stand dissolved;
    b. may, by a two thirds majority of the members thereof dissolve itself; or
    c. may be dissolved by the President at any time.
    7. Whenever the National Assembly is dissolved under this Article, there shall be Presidential elections and elections to the National Assembly and the first session of the new Parliament shall commence within three months from the date of the dissolution.

    Accessed at Constitute Project

      • Just for completeness, Constitution of Namibia 1990, same source.

        1. The National Assembly may be dissolved by the President on the advice of the Cabinet if the Government is unable to govern effectively.

        2. Should the National Assembly be dissolved a national election for a new National Assembly and a new President shall take place within a period of ninety (90) days from the date of such dissolution.

        While both countries have bilateral dissolution, in that an assembly dissolution requires both a legislative and presidential election, neither has equilateral dissolution where the assembly can force a new election on the same basis as the president. Namibia does not have dissolution by the assembly, and Zambia requires a supermajority.

        If I were scribbling a Utopian constitution I would be severely tempted to have a separate origin executive with equilateral dissolution and the Swedish rule.

      • I’m pretty sure equilateral dissolution would mean the elected PM model, as Israel tried in the late 90’s. I daresay few would recommend going down that road again…

      • @JD

        I’d think the Swedish rule would vastly reduce the incentives for minor parties to overthrow executives, especially knowing the president would remain in power until the election. It is one proposition to seek an early election that grants you a full term in office, it is quite another to seek an early election knowing you will have to face the regular election as well.

      • I would think that simply calling the directly elected official the President instead of PM would give the office a bit more stability. A PM who loses a confidence vote goes because that means he is no longer has confidence of the Parliament that creates him. A President with a public mandate who loses a vote simply loses a vote unless a parliament is simply determined to get rid of him and/or have an election. I think the Israeli experiment would have worked a lot better if they had adopted a directly elected presidency. A president doesn’t need a continuing parliamentary majority to stay in office, he just needs to keep parliament from being actively hostile and then form issue by issue majorities.

  11. Is there a country that uses two separate term systems for different legislative houses (or legislative tiers in the case of MMM or MMP)? For instance, the nominal tier/house has fixed terms while the proportional tier has snap elections? Australia seems to be the closest candidate to this.

    If not, would you see any potentially unique benefits or detriments to such a “mixed” system? And what requirements do you think are necessary to make such a “mixed” system work?

    I think such a system could yield great benefits as both systems have their advantages and temper the negative outcomes of the other. In bicameral houses or MMM the two methods could exist independently of each other. However, in the case of MMP a rule would need to be in place to assure that elections of the two tiers would happen concurrently every few years to achieve full proportionality. It would not, however, be necessary for the two tiers to always be elected together, but in such cases overhang seats would pop up more frequently.

    • I believe Japan and Australia both have unfixed terms for the lower house and fixed, rotational terms for the upper houses. There are a few U.S. states that I believe have rotations where all the seats in one or both of the legislative houses are never up for reelection at the same time, as does Tasmania in Australia. Canada and the U.K. also have one house with a semi-fixed term and a permanent (nonelected) upper house.

      I can’t really think of many examples beyond that.

  12. “… The ability to call a new election is a powerful tool, and one that David Cameron has foolishly signed away. His Fixed Term Parliaments Act was seen as a wedding ring slipped over Nick Clegg’s finger. At the time, it made sense – it was a promise that Cameron would not conspire with Labour to throw the LibDems to the wolves. So if the UK Prime Minister ends up in a similar crisis next summer, he will not be able call another election to resolve the impasse, as Harold Wilson did in 1974. Under Cameron’s daft new system, a new election can only be called if two-thirds of MPs agree it – ie, if both Labour and Tory agree to hold a new election. This, of course, will never happen. The timing of an election may suit one of these two parties, but it won’t suit both. Right now, in private, MPs of all parties agree that Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is madness. Right now, there is cross-party consensus to get rid of it – both parties think that, if they win, they may end up in precisely the same trap that Sweden is now in. In which case, the power to call a new election – if only as a threat to focus minds – is absolutely crucial. But the consensus will vanish after the election. The Leader of the Opposition is unlikely to put whoever is Prime Minister out of his misery. There is time, now, to change the law, to restore this much-needed power….”
    – Fraser Nelson, “Sweden’s political crisis shows why Britain needs to abolish five-year parliaments,” The Spectator (3 December 2014)

    Yes, yes, I know that it was published in The Spectator, and yes of course they mean “abolish fixed-term parliaments” not “abolish five-year parliaments”, but by Spectator standards this is actually close to being serious, sensible analysis. No sneers about Weimar, no ritual invocation of Disraeli’s “England does not love coalitions” as if it were unalterable holy writ, no arguing both “Coalition government means that minor parties can entrench themselves in a perpetual balance of power position” and “Polls show that voters are so disgusted with Nick Clegg’s unprincipled sell-outs that Liberal Democrat support has collapsed to negative single digits and the party is going to lose every single one of its MPs in 2015” a few paragraphs apart in the same article.

    • One of the problems with an ancient and semidivine constitution, whether written as in the US or unwritten as in the UK, is that the political class becomes so accustomed to saying ‘Our constitution is unique and wonderful’ that they lose the ability to think about it at all.

  13. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at David Cameron’s situation. Four years after the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum resoundingly proved that 62% of Britons with an opinion of the matter hate Nick Clegg because he’s both (a) a squishy crypto-Tory sell-out, hated by his own supporters [] and (b) Eurocratic socialist perpetual kingmaker [], Mr Cameron may yet end up being denied a popular-vote plurality because of ornery UKIP candidates splitting the combined right-wing vote. And after explaining that only first-past-the-post voting guarantees “strong, stable government,” because it throws away votes for “silly” third and fourth parties, the Tories will be faced with up to ten years of hung parliaments because they are so detested in Scotland that they’re the third or fourth party in fifty or more seats. Enjoy that sandwich, chaps, you prepared it.
    Meanwhile, in Australia, conservatives look across the Tasman to New Zealand and envy John Key’s success in getting his economic “reform” (ie, deregulation) agenda through. See for example:
    * Dan Tehan [a federal Liberal MHR], “If NZ can fix its budget with reform, so can we,” The Drum (ABC) (20 February 2015), URL:
    * Mikayla Novak, “New Zealand’s ‘rock star economy’ shows the way,” The Canberra Times (17 April 2015 — 11:45 PM). URL:
    * Cameron Stewart, “Revenge of the Kiwis: the tide turns in New Zealand’s favour.” Weekend Australian (4-5 April 2015), URL:
    New Zealand’s success is usually ascribed to its lacking federal States and a national Upper House (ie, eighteenth-century checks and balances), although little is said of its using proportional representation — a twenty-first century check and balance — for its single chamber. In other words, it tends to confirm the Round Doctrine you are better off with fewer legislative estates [*] while making sure those you do have are elected by PR [*], than with having a number of different legislative estates, each of which might represent only a plurality of its constituents, and then setting these at each other’s throats.
    [* I’m using “estates” here, for want of a better word, rather than “chambers” because I want to include (a) presidents who are elected and/or who have significant policy-making (or at least policy-vetoing) powers and (b) supreme courts and/or constitutional tribunals that have authority to overrule the legislature by interpreting some vaguely-worded Charter of Rights. In other words, US lawmaking at the federal level must run the gauntlet of four different estates — not just the House of Representatives and Senate but also the Presidency (armed with a hard-to-overturn veto) and a Supreme Court (armed with power to strike down laws in the name of vague principles of federalism, separation of powers and individual rights). Throw in those cases where cooperation with State legislatures is indisputably required (eg ObamaCare in the USA, corporations and anti-terrorism laws in Australia, etc) and you have a number of different policy-making “estates” of the realm. However in the USA all these estates, and in Australia the politically dominant estates in the most populous jurisdictions, are elected by winner-take-all systems.]
    [* By “PR” I mean “a reasonable degree of proportionality having regard to the size of the body.” If you have a single presidential seat, then using AV, runoff or Approval Voting to fill it — as opposed to plurality — satisfies the definition of “proportionally elected.” If you have a presidential triumvirate, like Bosnia under the Dayton Accords, then filling the three seats by PR-STV or List-PR is satisfactorily “proportionally.” But electing a 300-seat chamber by AV, runoff or Approval Voting from 300 single-member districts, or by PR from 100 three-seater districts, would not qualify as “proportional,” since a higher degree of proportionality (with at least five-seat districts as a minimum) is attainable in that case.]
    Now, you’d think at some point the professed disciples of Edmund Burke would start to look at the empirical evidence and the lived experience of countries like Australia and New Zealand, rather than repeating the usual pro-FPTP duckspeak (“Disraeli said ‘England does not love coalitions! Disraeli said ‘England does not love coalitions!’ Disraeli said…”) as if it were holy writ. But the British conservatives are still probably a good two or three decades off reaching that point.
    You have to remember that the essential touchstone for the Tories is thatany electoral system that would not have put Margaret Thatcher in power in 1979 and kept her there until 1991 is, on that ground alone, self-evidently disqualified. If a voting system is not able to somehow telepathically detect that a country is in crisis from Communist-led union strikes and to hand power to whichever party will save the nation, then that voting system is unfit for purpose.
    (To be fair, they also believe that any voting system that might have helped John Major avert defeat in 1992 is also self-evidently bad. So unless someone can come up with a voting system that produces exactly the same results as single-member plurality, it will be deemed manifestly inferior to single-member plurality.)
    So, for example, the Daily Mail — as a change in tune from complaining that British voters have been denied their promised right to sack unpopular parliamentarians in mid-term (Zac Goldsmith, “We were promised we’d be able to recall MPs… so much for the Coalition’s promises!” 8 August 2010, — warns darkly that AV is obviously bad because under it, Lady Thatcher would not have been able to administer her stern but necessary economic medicine between 1979 and 1991. (“Even if by a quirk of the system AV had allowed Thatcher a small working majority, it would have been an insecure basis for a long-lasting government. The same Wets would have been even stronger inside her Cabinet than they actually were between 1979 and 1983, and might have seen off the one party leader determined to avert an economic crisis.” Iain Martin, “Guess who would have run Britain under AV?” 9 April 2011,
    Two newspapers in one: Kick out unpopular MPs who don’t have ongoing 50% support for their controversial measures! But don’t retroactively make the strong government of the Thatcher Years impossible! Good luck squaring that circle, chaps. Because political institutions and procedures don’t possess telepathic intuition. You can’t write a constitution or a law that says “Good politicians and policies can get elected and retain untrammelled power on just 42% of the vote every five years, but bad politicians and policies need to maintain 50% support continuously from day to day, else they’re gone.” Or if you do, you might find this rule being interpreted and enforced by someone whose notions of “good” and “bad” differ sharply from yours: see Gore, Bush v and New York, Lochner v).
    PS: This one’s my personal favourite of the Daily Mail’s covering-itself-in-glory op-eds on the AV referendum:
    “… Now research by the NO to AV campaign reveals that if the 2010 general election had been run under AV, in seven out of ten seats not a single Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem voter would have been likely to get a second vote. More than 90 per cent of Labour and Conservative voters would have been unlikely to get a second vote By contrast, in some constituencies, supporters of the BNP would have had their preferences counted six times before a winner was declared. In all, BNP voters would have had two or more votes counted in 193 constituencies…” (James Chapman, “Fears move to poll reform ‘will give BNP voters more say at ballot box’.” 30 March 2011,
    Yes, I know. To anyone who has spent more than half an hour acquiring knowledge about on electoral systems, this is equivalent to complaining that you got offered your first-choice job on your very first interview, while your friend over there had the inestimable joy of attending a whole six (SIX!!!) interviews with employers before he was offered a position he considered better than nothing. Laugh all you like, but consider this. A professional journalist chose put his name to that tripe. One of the UK’s highest-circulation newspapers chose to publish it. And a large plurality of British adults chose to base their referendum votes on arguments like this.
    As former ALP federal Minister Barry Jones recently noted:
    “… The British Conservative Party has an outstanding record of having been consistently and demonstrably wrong on issues over 150 years, but had very forgiving supporters. The party actually benefited from the defeat of its great historic campaigns.
    “The Conservatives were for the Corn Laws, child labour, appeasement of Hitler and the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, and against Catholic and Jewish emancipation, manhood suffrage, Home Rule for Ireland, votes for women, the National Health Scheme, and independence for India.
    “It is hard to identify a single issue that the Tories got right the first time round. That did not prevent them from winning elections. In the 20th century, under universal suffrage, the Tories held office for longer than Labour and the Liberals combined…”
    Barry Jones, “A challenged democracy: wicked problems and political failures,” The Conversation (3 April 2015, 10.05 AM AEDT). URL:

    • Interesting then, that the projections for if AV had been used in the 80’s suggest that Thatcher not only would still have won in ’83 and ’87, it would have been with minimal losses in the former and actually with a few extra seats in the latter. Even Major would still have won in ’92, although admittedly with a majority narrow enough to make his government a minority rather sooner. (

  14. One so rarely finds constitutional comment worth noting in the London Daily Telegraph.

    Parliaments have been subject to a maximum term since the Septennial Act of 1715, amended to five years by the Parliament Act of 1911. The average length of a parliament over the past 60 years has been 3.8 years and this includes minority governments forced to the polls earlier than intended. Where governments have been in a position to choose because they know they are likely to win, the term has almost always been around four years. Indeed, when Asquith introduced the 1911 Act he acknowledged that the five-year maximum “would probably amount in practice to an actual working term of four years’’.

    A fixed term of four years takes the temptation to trigger an election to his own advantage entirely out of the prime minister’s hands. It removes power from the executive, which should be welcomed by constitutional reformers, and gives a vote to Parliament, which is more democratic. If a government falls and the law requires parties in Parliament to try to form another from the MPs already there, what’s wrong with that? This happened regularly in the 19th century (read The Pallisers) when organising another election was time-consuming and expensive. And if the parties can’t agree on a new administration within a fortnight, an election is triggered.

    In New South Wales, there were passionate and frequent demands for the governor to violate the constitution by calling an early election before 2011. Since the general election of 2011 no-one from premier to shockjock, has ever advocated repealing fixed terms. Repeal would require a referendum and I think the chance of it passing would be minimal.

  15. Pingback: So much for fixed terms | Fruits and Votes

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