Alternatives to Fixed-Term Elections

By Ben Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders, Academia.edu).


Until the present coalition government introduced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, in 2011, the UK Prime Minister had discretion to call elections at will, a power often used for partisan advantage. As Petra Schleiter reports in her post on OpenDemocracy, 60% of the UK’s post-war elections were called early (i.e. more than six months before required). Further, her analysis suggests that this gave incumbents a 6% vote gain, roughly doubling the PM’s chances of remaining in office.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act allows early elections to be called only in very restricted circumstances (either with support of two-thirds of the House of Commons or following a vote of no confidence after which no alternative government is approved by the Commons within 14 days). Schleiter points to a number of advantages of this; not only does it stop PMs from calling elections opportunistically, in order to increase their chances of victory, but depriving them of this power also prevents them from using the threat of an election to bully backbench MPs or coalition partners, thereby making the government more accountable to parliament.

However, in focusing on the advantages of fixed-term elections, Schleiter does not consider whether there are certain advantages to the old system, in which an election could be called at any moment. Alan Hamlin has previously argued that fixed-term elections will not eliminate a bias in favour of the incumbent. Though governments will not be able to call an election at a moment that happens to be favourable to them, they will be able to pursue policies designed to produce favourable circumstances at the time an election is scheduled to take place.

Further, Hamlin argues that the constant threat of a surprise election requires opposition parties to maintain a certain level of campaign-readiness and to be active in holding the government to account. Where is it known that there will not be another election for 4-5 years, opposition parties may have little incentive to provide opposition to the government, being focused on their long-term electoral strategy. Knowing that there may be an election at any time, however, forces these parties to hold the government to account. Thus, while the PM’s prerogative to call elections at will may give them greater control over their own party, this same arrangement may result in more effective opposition.

Though one stated aim of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was to reduce instability and short-termism, unpredictability does have some benefits, preventing both incumbents and opposition parties from attempting to ‘game’ the electoral cycle. While giving power to call elections to the PM is undesirable, since it will predictably be used for partisan advantage, fixed-term parliaments are not the only alternative. One possibility would be to return the power to dissolve parliaments to the monarch, who is supposedly impartial, but this would doubtless be undesirable too. Indeed, giving anyone the power to call elections will raise the possibility of favouritism or corruption, since no one can be guaranteed to be impartial.

There are, however, alternative arrangements that do not rely on giving any individual the power to call an election. Hamlin also touches on the possibility of random election cycles. There are various ways that such an idea might be implemented. One would be for a random period of time to be set after (or just before) each election, so it was known when the next election would be. This would, in effect, amount to a fixed-term, albeit that the length of term might vary from one government to the next. There seems little advantage to this.

Another possibility, however, would be to have a random device to determine whether an election should occur at a given moment in time. For instance, at the start of each year we might generate a number from one to ten and, if it is a one then an election must be held that year. There would, of course, be a chance (10% given these figures) that some governments could last little more than a year. There is also a chance that some may last a significant period of time; the chance of five random draws, without a one occurring, is almost 60%. The exact numbers, however, are not my concern here, but rather the principle, that we can avoid discretionary power without adopting fixed-term parliaments.

This is not necessarily to say that fixed-term parliaments are a bad thing. Perhaps, after due reflection, we may think it is good to allow parties – both in government and opposition – chance to step-down from constant election readiness and to implement (or devise) policy programmes. If so, then we may favour fixed-term parliaments because they allow for predictability and long-term planning, but these reasons are distinct from objections to the partisan effects of PM discretion. But if, like Hamlin, we value unpredictability as a means to ensure government accountability, and our only objection is to giving the PM power to call elections, then we may favour random elections rather than fixed terms. Thus, we need to decide whether predictable electoral cycles are a good thing or not, independently of any objections to PM’s discretion.

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