Most governments run out of ideas after around three years. This one is no exceptionby James Kirkup / November 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Politicians are like insects. Specifically, the magicicada, the flying locust-like creatures that hatch every 17 years across the north-eastern US. There is a rhythm to their lives, a natural cycle that determines their actions just as surely as the ticking clock that sends salmon upstream to spawn and die. For British politicians, this is the electoral cycle and it’s supposed to last four years.
That was Asquith’s expectation in 1911 when he abolished the Septennial Act 1715 and its seven-year Parliaments. A four-year term, he said, means the Commons is “always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or—and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will—it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship.”
In short, four years is long enough to get things done, but short enough that politicians never forget who’s boss: judgement day is always just around the corner.
The Coalition junked Asquith’s four-year norm in 2011 when it passed the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, the most important—and yet least-noticed—constitutional changes in Britain since Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1999.
The case for fixing the electoral timetable was sound enough: to work together, the two coalition partners had to have faith that the other was not about to collapse their shared vessel and cash in with an early general election.
Not everyone is convinced. The House of Lords Constitutional Affairs Committee last year fretted that the law makes coalitions more likely since it reduces the scope for a minority government to govern for a few months then trigger a quick second election. “This may affect government-formation negotiations by prompting parties to seek alternatives to forming a minority administration,” the peers said.
Yes, but is that actually a problem? This is an age of political fragmentation, the combined vote-share of the Conservatives and Labour sliding inexorably downwards as voters shop around and encourage smaller parties. Any constitutional device that encourages governments with the broadest support should be welcomed.
No, the problem with the Act isn’t the fix itself. It’s the timetable. Five years is too long for a parliamentary government. France, like many other republics, elected its head of state for a five years, but then checks the leader’s power with legislative elections. The US Constitution judges four years appropriate for a president, a term that has never been seriously questioned. Britain, at far greater risk of elective dictatorship than the US, should surely expose its leadership to such frequent checks.
The Coalition justified a 25 per cent increase in the standard British governmental term with some nice words about the need for long-term stability at a time of fiscal crisis. Legislate in haste, repent at leisure: the national emergency phase of our fiscal crisis was over in the first couple of years: gilt markets wouldn’t have minded if Britain had gone to the polls this year instead of next.
The Lib Dems often get the blame for the five-year term, and they were indeed happy to delay electoral Doomsday as long as possible. But a certain sort of Tory was keen too. Oliver Letwin, currently the Minister of State for Government Policy at the Cabinet Office, waffled affably about the glories of being able to plan for the long term, untroubled by the inconvenient electorate.
That technocratic logic points towards seven- or even ten-year parliaments, or—reductio ad absurdum—the abolition of elections, to ensure irrational voters have no scope for interfering with the plans of those who know best. A politician who complains that a four-year electoral cycle means he can’t deliver a big or controversial programme is actually just admitting he that he can’t win the argument for that programme. That’s just not a good enough reason to change the rules.
There’s a more practical objection too: most governments run out of ideas after three-and-a-bit years. This one is no exception. Ministers exhausted their initial Coalition Agreement list of legislation some time in 2012, and attempts to hammer out a Coalition 2.0 plan of works had very limited success.
The initial agreement captured the areas where Conservatives and Lib Dems could (more or less) co-operate. Beyond its limits, ministers have struggled to agree meaningful new laws, so Parliament’s workload has dwindled.
Would a single-party have been better able to maintain momentum? Perhaps, but it would take an unusually unified single party, elected with solid majority and a particularly detailed manifesto. Those three conditions seem unlikely to be met in the next Parliament.
An extended timetable and a lack of meaningful work results in MPs who are inclined to behave like toddlers kept up past their bedtime: restless, emotional, and increasingly grumpy.
That’s when they’re actually in Parliament, of course. Attendance at Westminster is already slack. Many MPs drift into town on Tuesday, then drift off again on Thursday morning. Those with marginal seats are rarely seen save at PMQs on Wednesday. Some talk quite seriously of not coming back at all after Christmas. Entirely unannounced, the 2015 general election campaign is already well under way in some constituencies, largely because of that five-year timetable.
British politicians obsess over the rise of Ukip and the political discontent it represents, debating possible causes: Europe? Immigration? Falling real wages? None seems willing to consider that voters are simply sick of the lot of them, and angry at being made to wait to pass judgement.
King Solomon, recorded in Ecclesiastes and celebrated by the Byrds, tells us that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted.”
Westminster is overdue its reaping and the corn is starting to spoil. A five-year Parliament is too long.