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Swiftboats and Fixed Terms


2:49 pm - December 28th 2007

by Unity    


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With the Christmas festivities safely concluded, I’ve decided to take a little time out from some truly excellent Christmas reading – Christopher Hitchens’ “Portable Atheist” is well worth the investment in book tokens – to tackle one of the most risible pieces of hypocritical political sophistry I’ve seen in some considerable time…

…Iain Dale’s ‘campaign‘ for fixed term parliaments.

Like Matthew Sinclair, I’m by no means averse to the idea of fixed parliamentary terms, but unlike Iain and other new found Tory converts to the ’cause’ of constitutional reform I actually understand the workings of the British constitution, in theory and practice, well enough to appreciate that the introduction of even a seemingly simple innovation, like fixed parliamentary terms, would require a significant restructuring of our entire constitutional settlement in order to prove workable, not least in necessitating a far greater and more substantive separation between the executive and legislature than has existed at any time since the English Civil War.

Fixed terms of office ‘work’, for example, under the US system precisely because their is a clear constitutional separation between the executive and legislature. Under such a system the executive authority of the presidency in not contingent on the support of the legislature, although the ability of the president to advance legislation in support of his preferred political agenda may be drastically curbed should control of Congress lie in the hands of his/her political opponents. Such a system is, therefore, not without its problems, not least insofar as it can, and often does, result in periods in which the presidency may be legislatively inert due to opposition in Congress but rarely do such periods result in full scale executive impotence. A president may not be able to legislate effectively without the support on Congress but he/she can at least continue to govern within the existing legislative framework they have to hand and see out their full term, even if this means spending their final two years in office as something of a ‘lame duck’.

In Britain there is no such complete separation and the ability of a government (and a Prime Minister) to govern is wholly reliant on their retention of majority support in the House of Commons. Lose that, as happened to Jim Callaghan in 1979, and the capacity to govern can dissipate in the space of a single motion of no confidence.

A true system of fixed term parliaments is possible only if one separates fully the executive and legislature, as occurs in the US presidential system, such that a Prime Minister may be removed from office ahead of his appointed time only be means of a judicial process (impeachment) rather than on the basis of a simple motion of no confidence. Anything less and, as Iain himself outlines here, all one does is move from a system in which elections are called ‘ahead of time’ by means of a Prime Minister making personal use of the royal prerogative to one in which elections continue to be called at times thought most favourable to an incumbent government on the basis of staged ‘constructive’ no confidence motion. Such a system changes nothing in principle, merely adds a bit of minor political theatre to the process in the form of a heavily whipped vote, one that in most cases a Prime Minister can rely on sufficiently to have the car waiting outside with the motor running for the short trip up The Mall to conclude the formalities with the reigning monarch.

Dale’s ‘campaign’ is a piece of transparent nonsense and deeply hypocritical nonsense at that.

His supposed ‘case’ for fixed term parliaments, as set out here by Conor Burns, consists solely of an unsupported assertion that Gordon Brown failed to ‘play the game’ and brought the constitution into ‘disrepute’ by seeking to manipulate the electoral calendar to his own partisan ends. As Matthew correctly points out, little good it did him in the end as he badly misjudged the whole process and wound up taking a hammering in the polls when he failed to ‘fess up the obvious, that it was the shift in the opinion polls after the Tory conference that settled matters and militated against an early poll, but in any case if there is allegedly something morally distasteful in the notion that incumbent Prime Ministers seek to time general elections to their, and their party’s, best advantage then Brown is hardly alone in finding himself faced with the assertion that he should be considered ‘guilty as charged’. As Burn’s notes, in both 1983 and 1987, Margaret Thatcher went to the country 12 months ahead of time, on the latter occasion after what he styles as ‘mild and predictable, partisan noises’ about an ‘advantageous’ budget prior to the election, and yet in cataloguing the ‘honourable’ reasons why earlier Prime Ministers (Eden, Heath and Wilson, in particular) went to the country ahead of time he appears to have nothing to offer by way of an assertion of Thatcher’s ‘honourable’ motives, in no small part because she had no such motives, only a desire to take maximum advantage for favourable polls – the very same charge for which Gordon Brown stands condemned as ‘a scheming, calculating, partisan politician prepared to put his political advantage ahead of his nation’s interests’.

One can hardly be surprised by this, in part because Burns’ laughable commentary appeared first at Conservative Home, a venue where the Blessed Margaret can do no wrong, but more so because Dale isn’t, in truth, running a campaign for fixed term parliaments or any sort of constitutional reform.

He is running a campaign of sorts, it has to be said, but only a campaign of character assassination against Gordon Brown, one in which Brown’s shilly-shallying over calling an early election has made the notion of fixed term parliaments an ideal vehicle for Dale’s swiftboating efforts. He tried much the same thing back in November in a Telegraph article slating Labour’s proposal to criminalise incitement to hatred on grounds of sexuality as anti-free speech, in which he claimed that Labour’s sole motive for introducing these proposals was to sow seeds of dissension in Tory ranks:

This is why Gordon Brown wants to add these amendments to the Crime and Immigration Bill. He wants to put the Tories on the spot and make political hay out of any splits. Shamefully, he is quite willing to use
the ”gay” issue to do it.

Shamefully, Iain seems prepared even to trade on his own sexuality to give credence to his efforts to smear Gordon Brown at every opportunity, despite the fact that equality legislation is one field in which Labour governments over the last ten years have had a clear and consistent track record.

In his New Year statement, last year, David Cameron stated that:

2007 will be the year that Labour’s dark side comes to the fore. With Blair going and Brown coming, we need to prepare ourselves for an onslaught of negative campaigning and the politics of fear and division.

All of which turned out to be less a prediction than a set of instructions to his minions and one followed to the letter by Iain Dale.

I’ll be interested to see whether Gordon Brown’s New Year message goes something along the lines of ‘what goes around, comes around.’

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


1. Lorna Spenceley

The Prime Minister’s power to call an election ahead of time could presumably be constrained by legislation specifying that any government formed as a result of such an election would serve only until the next fixed date for an election.

This wouldn’t prevent Prime Ministers opting for an early bath, but it would mean they’d derive little benefit from it, and it could be counter-productive if voters tired of it.

The arguments for fixed term Parliaments don’t stop and start with Iain Dale – not only have the Liberal Democrats long argued for them, so has the Labour Party at times (particularly under Neil Kinnock). Yet reading this piece you make it sound like this is all a story about the Conservatives. Is it really fixed term Parliaments you’re again, or just Iain Dale?

Yeah – I didn’t sign up to “Iain Dale’s Campaign for Fixed Term Parliaments”. It was a joint effort and some of us are only too aware of the potential constitutional ramifications, and like it that way!

Besides, it’s David Howarth’s PM Bill that’s going to be trying to get the time isn’t it?

Pathetic. It’s not “Iain Dale’s campaign” as you would see if you actually looked at the website. It’s supported by all sorts of people across the political spectrum. Our Kingdom, hardly a Tory loving blog, is totally supportive and posts things on the site from time to time. Look beyond your blinkers. Mark Pack is right (and I don’t always say that).

Mark:

I’m well aware that Iain is not the be all and end all of the debate around fixed term parliaments.

I’ve made two substantive points here that you are welcome to engage with.

The first is that a genuine system of fixed term parliaments in unworkable in the context of our present constitutional settlement and would be workable only as part of a far-reaching constitutional reform package part of which must entail a clear separation between executive and legislature. It’s just not something that can be introduced piecemeal without either creating major constitutional problems or resorting to the meaningless piece of political theatre of staged confidence votes.

I’m not against fixed term parliaments, I simply recognise that their introduction would require some rather more fundamental constitutional changes than parts of the current debate appear to acknowledge.

Now if you want to debate that kind of reform package, I’m game…

The second is that Iain and other Tories are using this present campaign as little more than a vehicle for their own partisan interests.

Its a simple enough assertion.

Brown’s indecision over calling an election and, in particular, his poorly judged efforts to deny that he had been influenced by post-conference shifts in the opinion polls when this was patent obvious to even the most casual observer was both a personal embarrassment and hurt him in the polls and the public eye. A ‘campaign’ for fixed parliamentary terms is simple and blatantly obvious method of seeking to sustain that embarrassment for as long as possible, hence the sudden interest in Tory ranks.

That much should be obvious to any political tyro, even without the likes of Dale and Conor Burns loading their ‘case’ for fixed term parliaments with anti-Brown rhetoric rather than engaging with anything that remotely resembles a legitimate argument for reform.

Iain:

Funny how its always the arguments that point out that the ‘Emperor has no clothes’ that you deem to be ‘pathetic’.

Some may be gullible enough to let you get away with hiding behind the coat-tails of genuine, honest, campaigners for constitutional reform… but not me.

Our Kingdom and others may well be supportive of a campaign for fixed term parliaments but I would strongly suggest that they should take a good close look at some of the rhetoric accompanying this campaign and ask themselves whether they really wish to be associated with your particular ‘brand’ of campaigning or whether current Tory support for fixed terms is about as sincere as Blair’s pre-1997 claim to be in favour of PR.

That last bit of constitutional backsliding by a would be PM is one that many Lib Dems will remember fondly I’m sure.

Yawn yawn yawn

Are you playing the man or the ball?

Pathetic.

Very good post Unity, I’ve long thought all this guff about Brown using the GE to his advantage was nonsense because of previous PMs doing likewise (a point I note no Tory poster above has dared touch)…

Unity,

I’m a bit confused by your suggestion this is some kind of conservative plot. Look at the poll Iain posted up:

“25% of Conservative, 41% of Labour and 88% of LibDem MPs support fixed terms”

That suggests that the Conservatives are the least supportive of fixed terms and, as such, “current Tory support for fixed terms” doesn’t seem to exist at the senior level. This makes comparisons to “Blair’s pre-1997 claim to be in favour of PR” and links to Cameron speeches a little strained. There’s no need to build a conspiracy theory out of all this. People can be wrong without being malign – that’s a point I was hoping to make to Our Kingdom.

On the substance of this debate I agree with you but I don’t know why every debate has to become an inquiry into your opponents’ motives and character.

Best,
Matt

How, exactly, is C. Hitchen’s book “risible…political sophistry”? You may disagree with him about the war in Iraq (so do I), but on religion I defy anyone to out-argue him. His logic is impeccable and his writing is beautious as well as lethal to god-botherers. Away with all your suspersitions!

Jim:

Try reading that first paragraph again and you’ll see that what I said was that I was taking a little time out from some excellent reading – Portable Atheist – to tackle a piece of risible political sophistry, not suggesting that the book, which I’m enjoying immensely, is a piece of risible political sophistry.

It is late, I know, but do try to keep up. 🙂

Sorry. It *is* late. But I blame the drink.

“On the substance of this debate I agree with you but I don’t know why every debate has to become an inquiry into your opponents’ motives and character.”

Quite.

This has become a rather boring aspect of the site.

(Cue Sunny to tell me to p*ss off if I don’t like it…!!)

In my view, to quote one J. Bartlett, “We already have term limits in this country. They’re called elections.”

PS – ok so the above doesn’t quite refer to the same thing, but it sounded cool 😉

I can’t buy the idea this would just change the political theatre. It would be easy to prevent the vote of no confidence becoming a tool of the PM by restricting the ability to call one to the leader of the opposition or requiring a super-majority to call an election earlier than term.

I too think fixed terms would work better in a broader constitutional solution but it’s definitely practical to implement usefully without separating the powers.

We have 3 main political parties, dominated by boys, and mostly jobsworth-boys to boot.
Fixed or flexible terms aren’t going to give us politicians who care about people over their own careers, or who are willing to ignore opinions polls, or who are willing to make policy thinking about the future beyond one term.
I used to bemoan voter apathy as voters’ faults. But it’s politics. A bigger bunch of self centered, anal dramatists you won’t find outside of big brother; and I’m buggered if I’m voting for any of them next time.
Why? Conservatives are wrong, whatever. The Labour party seems paralysed, by what I don’t care. And my previous drink of choice the Lib Dems, have chosen a dull technocrat, middle-ground manager politician as leader.
I’m BORED!
There are serious problems facing us, and the political world is not addressing them. They talk a little, but do less. What’s the point of voting if changing government means “no change”?

17. Richard Edwards

Oh dear its difficult to know where to start! But the crux of your argument seems to be that “the introduction of even a seemingly simple innovation, like fixed parliamentary terms, would require a significant restructuring of our entire constitutional settlement in order to prove workable.” This is quite simply wrong.

The doctrine of responsible government is the most important constitutional principle at issue here. As a consequence of this principle if the government looses the confidence of the House of Commons it must hold an election. Now it is perfectly possible to alter the Crown’s discretionary power to dissolve the House before a parliamentary term expires so unless a government looses confidence that parliament continues for a fixed period. It works perfectly well in both Scotland and some Australian states. (New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria). All govern under ‘Westminster’ style constitutions.

So called fixed terms – they are really semi-fixed – are not however beyond manipulation themselves. The German Bundestag has been dissolved early through the use of constructive votes of no confidence for example in 1982 by Helmut Kohl and in 2005 by Gerhard Schroder.

Hope this helps clarify matters so far as ‘fixed-term’ parliaments are concerned.

Richard:

You appear to mistake the context in which I use the term ‘workable’ here.

The system you suggest, which I understand perfectly well, is workable in the sense that it could be introduced but unworkable in the sense that it would entirely fail to achieve its specified objective, that of preventing an incumbent government from calling an early election to take advantage of a favourable situation in the polls.

Whether an election is called on the exclusive authority of the PM or following a staged confidence motion makes no difference whatsoever to the outcome – so long as the incumbent government has a Commons majority the election will be called.

19. Richard Edwards

Thanks for replying Unity. I can’t agree! Our current system allows the PM free reign to manipulate election dates for reasons that are purely arbitrary, partisan or capricious. As Brown’s White Paper candidly observes the power of the PM to in effect dissolve Parliament at will ‘gives the Prime Minister significant control over Parliament.’ (@ para 34).

A semi-fixed term is preferable. While it is of course open to manipulation, any PM that chooses to seek a constructive vote of no confidence runs the risk of appearing to brazenly manipulate the electoral process. Oppositions, if no one else, are bound to make hay with such manipulation.

Semi-fixed terms bring stability and certainty. They force the executive to govern and not to think about naked electoral calculation. Under our current system speculation that an early election might be called colours the whole political process. Partisan and tactical considerations surrounding the possibility of an early election can be disruptive and distracting for good government. Unpopular decisions can be postponed because of the fear of the impact that these will have on the electorate. I suspect that Northern Rock would have been allowed to fail but for the imminence of the phony poll of 2007.


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