The Fixed Term Parliament Act has failed its first and only challenge

June 8th will see a general election in the UK. It is a big political twist after Theresa May denied that it would happen, until she realised that it would be massively to her advantage. British law states that parliaments should last for five years before they are re-elected.

We now face a real problem in our democracy as Theresa May has rigged the electoral system in her favour and won’t even stand up to scrutiny at public debates. So how has the Fixed Term Parliament Act, signed into law in 2011, lasted just six years and failed from its first significant challenge?

Everyone is arguing at the moment about what the outcome will be of the election. Most people suppose that the Conservatives have gambled on an early election because they think that Labour will suffer a crushing defeat and hand them a sizeable majority that will make Brexit and other policy programmes easier to pass through.

There is still hope on the left that this could make their lives easier in the long run. For example, a new leader by 2022 might be more effective than losing under Jeremy Corbyn in 2020. However, stepping back from the party politics, the fact that the election will be happening at all is worrying.

The reason that Theresa May has outwardly given to justify the election is that Brexit has caused a division. She claims that strong and stable government, not currently possible under a working government majority of just 17, is essential to navigate the choppy waters ahead.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act was enacted by David Cameron as part of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition to take the politics out of the timing of general elections. Previously, the Prime Minister had the privilege of being able to call a snap election when they chose.

This allowed them to take advantage of swings in the economy and positive poll ratings to manipulate the result in their favour. It is in the same league as gerrymandering, where the incumbent government can fix the election result by reshaping voting constituencies in their favour.

The legislation worked for a time, as the coalition was given the full five years to govern and the election was held as scheduled in 2015. However, it necessarily has clauses in it that allow an early election to be held. There are two sets of circumstances where this is possible. Firstly, if there are emergency circumstances that demand it, a two-thirds majority of parliament may vote. Secondly, if a vote of no confidence in the government is passed with a simple majority.

Some questions are prompted then that call into question whether May’s behaviour is appropriate. Legally, she has followed the rules and Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to support an early election. But are her reasons to call an early election worthy of violating the spirit of this law?

After all, this law is supposed to be about reinforcing the importance of democracy and stopping government’s rigging the system.

She seems to be putting the politics back into the election date because it suits her politically. Labour have spinelessly supported the decision, with the naive belief that the alternative that Corbyn offers will be compelling for the British public.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act has not worked. The first time a party leader has initiated the process, it has been sacrificed. Politicians on all sides have been complicit in binning a piece of legislation because they are jostling for their own interests. Tellingly, many of the reasons given by those opposing the snap election are personal rather than principled. For example, Clive Lewis MP voted against the election because it has forced him to cancel his own stag do and honeymoon. The commitment to fixed term parliaments has waned.

Why are fixed term parliaments a good thing in the first place? They stop politicians fixing election dates for when it suits them. This means there could be multiple elections in a year, or they could call an election when their party polls double their opposition’s numbers, as the Conservatives currently do.

We have a real problem with short-termism in our politics.

Governments pass policies that don’t outlast them and each new administration does a complete overhaul of something as fundamental in our society as the NHS or the education system. Politicians dabble in technical areas rather than letting experts guide policy.

The ping pong swing of policy between Labour and the Conservatives over the last century has damaged our country. The Fixed Term Parliament Act is one way in which a little more consistency and stability could have been preserved.

It wouldn’t have stopped government’s alternating policy or turning everything inside out. It would have stopped the quick fixes of economic boosts and snap elections though.

We don’t want to become a shambles like America, where the constant fear of regular elections forces politicians to slavishly surrender to popular opinion and powerful capitalist interests.

Of course, we must have the flexibility to incorporate an emergency. For example, during the Panama Papers controversy when it was revealed that David Cameron had shady offshore interests and investments, there was a big swell of support for an early election. Whilst that is obviously a bad state of affairs for our government, it was good that we did not call an election as people asked. Indeed, the government cited the act as a reason why, saying that "no Government can call an early general election any more anyway".

Why the sudden change of heart? Brexit is a big deal and more room for manoeuvre could lead to a more palatable and considered agreement with Europe. Nonetheless, a referendum was pledged in the Conservative manifesto, so these circumstances were mandated by a democratic majority of people, as was the election result. These are extraordinary times but not exceptional circumstances worthy of binning an important democratic measure. The government, opposition and political class have not shown enough restraint.

So what is the future of the Fixed Term Parliament Act now that Theresa May has proved its ineffectiveness? It is due to be reviewed in 2020 anyway by a parliamentary committee, so recommendations could be made that it could be kept, adjusted or repealed.

Perhaps it didn’t go far enough and the clauses that allow an early election to be held give incumbent Prime Ministers too much power in being able to call a snap vote. How else can we keep the opportunism and naked self-interest of our leaders in check?

Whatever we do, we must ensure that our government’s think of the long-term public interest. Indeed, our definition of long-term must now be longer than five years, especially in these times of unchartered political territory.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act has failed its first and only challenge The Fixed Term Parliament Act has failed its first and only challenge Reviewed by Ciaran McCormick on 15:25 Rating: 5

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