Locking down election dates has left us in a fix. The lesson? Think before you reformby Tom Clark / August 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson’s shocking move to suspend parliament at a time when, putting it mildly, MPs have pressing matters to discuss, affirms afresh the urgency of modernising Britain’s creaking democracy. Capricious rulers can play all sorts of games unchecked and unbalanced, and the case for reining them in by rationalising the half-forgotten precedents and far-flung bits of vellum in which our constitution consists seems unarguable.
But those who—like Prospect—believe in reform must be clear-eyed about the many ways this can go wrong. One recent case study is instructive. Not long ago, fixed parliamentary terms were a demand of the concerned, “progressive” citizen: I once ran a survey of Guardian readers that registered 80 per cent backing. Today, however, no law is more despised than the 2011 statute that (supposedly) sets the next election for 2022.
The myriad—and not always consistent—charges against it include claims that it stopped Theresa May getting Brexit done, that it has entrenched zombie governance, and that it might soon drag the Queen into party politics. It certainly failed on its own terms: if there is an autumn election, it will be the third in the eight years that fixed five-year terms have been on the statute book. The electoral rhythm has actually become less predictable than before.
So where did the idea come from, and how did it go so wrong? It was the awesome centralisation of power in Margaret Thatcher’s hands that first fuelled progressive interest in clipping her wings by—in the words of the 1987 SDP/Liberal Alliance manifesto—removing “the right of the prime minister to determine the date of general elections.”
Little thought, though, was given to whether this particular “right” actually afforded unfair advantage. While administrations that ran through to the maximum five years were often defeated—as in 1964, 1997 and 2010—these were governments that had held on because they were already running from defeat. The expected term was generally four years, and prime ministers who veered (or toyed with veering) away from that mostly damaged themselves: Ted Heath went a touch early in 1970, James Callaghan wobbled before holding on beyond 1978, and Brown had an anguished wrestle with a snap poll in 2007. All lived to regret it. Then, of course, Theresa May unfixed the…