This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Friday, 14 May 2010

What’s 5% between friends?

One of the most striking statements of the last few days was William Hague’s claim that ‘the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May, 2015’. That is, by the way, 7 May. One for the diary, maybe? And it’s all because of this clause in the coalition agreement:

The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.

This has provoked a series of complaints, about being its supposedly undemocratic nature. It would, for example, stop a government defeated by one vote on a vote of confidence, as Callaghan was in 1979, from having to go to the country.

Although it’s not very clear from the coalition agreement, what the scheme is doing is decoupling two concepts: ‘confidence’ and ‘dissolution’. So a government that lost a vote of confidence (like Callaghan’s) would still be expected to resign. But, unlike at present, that would not trigger an (almost) automatic general election. Instead an alternative governing majority would be sought, perhaps under a new Prime Minister, perhaps under a new arrangement of parties. If no alternative could be found, then parties would come together to trigger the 55% dissolution requirement and an election would be held.

One problem that many of those arguing against this have is that fixed term parliaments were a manifesto pledge for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats (though not the Conservatives). And here’s the problem: if you have fixed term parliaments, then you need a mechanism of some sort that prevents the governing party ending them at will. Else, how do you simply stop the government deliberately losing a vote of confidence, and triggering an election, whenever it likes? A fixed term parliament, without some mechanism to stop that sort of manoeuvring, isn’t fixed at all.

But even if you accept that the ideas are worth considering, there are still all sorts of interesting questions:

1. Why 5 years? Most recent UK Parliaments have lasted for four years. Moreover, Scottish, Welsh and London elections are on a four-year cycles, establishing Westminster on a four-year cycle as well – and starting now - would also ensure that they didn’t occur on the same days.

2. Why 55%? If the aim is to stop a party collapsing its own government, then 55% seems very low. Whilst it would work in this particular parliament, in most recent elections (including 1983, 1987, 1997, and 2001) the government would have had enough MPs to trigger the 55% hurdle on their own. The Scottish Parliament, which has a similar scheme, has a 66% hurdle, and that would be more significant.

3. How is this to be embedded? It is not clear what this ‘binding’ resolution is. Westminster doesn’t have binding resolutions, or laws. What is to stop a government – with a majority, but not 55% - simply repealing the bill establishing fixed parliaments, and then triggering an election? It might look a bit shifty, but it could always be justified in the ‘good of the country’ or something similar.

4. Did anyone consult the Queen about this, since formally dissolution is in the hands of the Monarch?

5. And what effect will this have on party discipline? Before, governments always had recourse to making an issue a vote of confidence, which would make all but the most recalcitrant MPs come back into line, for fear of triggering an election. Under the proposed scheme, losing a vote of confidence might bring down the administration, but as long as it could muster 55% it wouldn’t need to go to the country.

These are interesting times to be studying the constitution; they might also be interesting times to be studying party discipline.

Professor Philip Cowley


  1. Hello Phil,

    Thanks for the post. It does raise many interesting questions and there are all sorts of potential issues that will only be worked out when we see the detail.

    I'm in favour of fixed term parliaments (of four years), but as I posted on Twitter yesterday, the biggest political problem with the proposal, and the reason why there is so much disquiet, is its jettisoning of the established convention that there is a link between a 51% vote of no confidence and the dissolution of Parliament.

    Of course, as with all things in the British constitution, conventions are there to be broken, as they were in 1924 when Labour placed a no confidence amendment to the King's Speech, leading Baldwin to stand down and MacDonald to take over with a minority government without the holding of a general election. That was slightly different from the normal no confidence scenario, though, because it was essentially about resolving the outcome of the December 1923 general election, held a few weeks earlier. But the overall point is that many, many generations of politicians have had it in their bloodstream that a lost vote of confidence = dissolution = an election.

    Though it's open to abuse by the executive, there's a certain democratic purity to the opposition being able to trigger an election on a simple majority basis in a no confidence vote, even in a fixed-term parliament system. These are all old arguments, I know, but they bear being restated.

    Deciding who benefits most, the Conservatives or the Lib Dems, from this constitutional "lock-in" much depends on who you read. But it seems certain that there's one group that will not benefit from the new rule at least in the medium term: the opposition. In this current context, the 55% proposal therefore has a whiff of naked self-interest about it.

    Finally, as you say, this will be introduced by statute. In the absence of a written constitution with proper mechanisms for legitimising important constitutional changes like this, it sets the precedent that future hung parliaments will be able to legislate different thresholds depending on the specific balance of power between coalition partners at the time.

    Better to establish constitutional rules as openly and as legitimately as possible, then let parties interact in the new environment, as has occurred in Scotland and Wales, where there were huge new constitutional settlements ratified by referendums. The 55% proposal gets it the wrong way round: it takes the current parties' balance of power and establishes a new constitutional rule based upon this.

    There's an interesting post comparing the proposal with the Scottish context here:

  2. The 5 years is very simple to explain, its the present maximum length of a Parliament. You would have thought a G-P-MH boy fom Brunel would know that.....

  3. Another point is that the existing system puts some measure of responsibility on to the opposition - defeating the government in a vote of confidence will likely force an election for which they themselves may not be prepared. But this way they could discredit the government without themselves being prepared either to take over or to face the elctoral consequences. You say that "If no alternative could be found, then parties would come together to trigger the 55% dissolution requirement and an election would be held." But this is predicated on the idea that they would necessarily behave reasonably - what if the parties refuse to come together?

    Richard Toye

  4. 1. Agreed, it should be 4 years.

    2. Agreed, should be a larger hurdle. My thought is it could be relative, perhaps the seats of the governing party(s) + 5% ???

    3. I think this will rely on the differences between 'motions' and 'bills'. Motions are much more instantaneous, compared to bills that need 3 readings in both Houses. Repealing the relevant act would require a bill rather than a motion, so would be much more difficult and time-consuming. Would the Lords let this happen, for instance? Wouldn't the government be subjected to no confidence motions?

    4. I guess the Queen could block Royal Assent if she wanted to keep this power in the Monarch's hands... now that would be something!

    5. Sounds like a reasonable assessment... and a positive thing if it reduces the power of the whip IMO.

  5. Pretty much what I've been saying and I agree with the questions you've raised, apart from the consulting the Queen bit of course. With no legitimacy she has no right to be consulted, despite what our constitution doesn't say.

  6. Personally, I'd have gone for 4-year fixed terms and a 66% threshold for early dissolution, but I don't these are sticking points.

    A for party disclipline, it is healthy for democracy for the government to lose votes from time to time, so long as they are not 'confidence and supply' issues.

  7. The 55% dissolution suggestion is fine as long as their is a deadlock clause that allows parliament a fixed amount of time - 28 days in the case of the Scottish Parliament - to agree a government that commands the confidence of the house. If that is not forthcoming then parliament should be dissolved automatically.

    In fact some may argue for more than 55% because on current arithmetic the coalition could conceivably call an early poll should conditions prove favourable. AV and an electoral pact on second preferences? Now what would that do to the make up of parliament? Of course I cannot foresee the circumstances under which that could of course occur.

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  9. Cees van der Eijk15 May 2010 at 00:28

    Minor correction: the European Parliament elections are not on a 4-year but on a 5-year cycle, the most recent were in June 2009, the next will be in June 2014.

  10. Thanks for the comments. Cees is (of course) right (my fault from writing the piece too quickly) -- but the point about Scotland/Wales/London is right, and another reason why four years would be better. I loved the comment about things that a Brunel alumnus should (and did!) know, but just because parliaments can be 5 years is no reason why they should be...

    And you do, of course, need some safety valve (as in Scotland). My main point is that this is an idea worth considering and debating - even if some of the details might need amendment. No problem with those who don't like it, but I struggle to understand the violent objections from those who favoured fixed-term parliaments (as the Labour manifesto did) and yet who see this as a democratic outrage...

  11. Given we are talking pretty significant constitutional change should we not have a referendum?

    We're in danger of getting ourselves into a real constitutional pickle.

    Is it our 'unwritten constitution' that says a simple majority can trigger an election? Or that Parliaments should be for five years? Or that a PM can call an election anytime? Or is it a 'custom'?

    Whatever it is: this new proposed arrangement sets a dangerous precedent. It uses Parliament's ultimate power never to bind itself to set up some new rules which suit the two Coalition partners. Ergo any new incoming Government, with a majority, has carte blanche to rewrite the rules. Why not 6 years? Or 8 years? Why not 90%? Or 99%?

    I state the extreme to highlight the principle at stake.

    We all knew where we stood for 100's of years under the old 'rules'. Some new rules are being created - on the hoof - by the people who happen to be in power today. Which starts to feel a bit like third world politics.

    A solution would be to go for a fully written Constitution - and enshrine this as the 'rules' for the future. Not drawn up by the current winners - but by all - and voted on by all in a Referendum.

    By jettisoning our old principles - two unrepresentative parties have cobbled together a neat stitch-up in a matter of days - and set in train a dangerous precedent.

    It feels to me like our Constitution is becoming neither fish nor fowl. And the role of the Queen indeed is very much in question.

    I'm surprised there is not more concern about this jiggering around on such a fundamental issue as how we can appoint and dismiss our representatives.


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