Thursday, 13 May 2010

On fixed term parliaments and what it means

It's been an interesting day, and one that has brought out quite the worst in people with regards to jumping to conclusions, failing to understand basic principles, and using people's fears to manipulate a misunderstanding to their advantage. It should have been a day to discuss the merits or not of a Fixed Term Parliament in the UK, instead the discussion was hijacked by those that didn't know what they were talking about, arguing in a manner purely designed to obfuscate reality.

To those like I have talked to today: If you believe that a government, after being voted out of power by the 50%+1 MPs in a vote of no confidence, should be mandated to dissolve parliament...you do not agree with fixed term parliaments as much as you may think.

If you believe that the only way democracy can work is if the people get to vote on who forms the government then not only do you not agree with Fixed Term Parliaments as much as you may think, but you also completely misunderstand how this country is governed.

If you believe that MPs should have the power to decide when to dissolve parliament, rather than the PM, that doesn't mean you support fixed term parliaments. All it means is that you believe that our representatives should hold that power, not a single individual.

We elect MPs, and we elect them both because of their individual abilities locally and because of the party they belong to, for each voter the two sides of that coin can matter to different amounts. In doing so you have done nothing to elect a specific government.

At best you can know that you are contributing to a result that puts one party in power, and thus a recognised leader. If you're lucky that leader might have let you know who his entire cabinet is, but even that isn't a guarantee.

If you believe our system should be such that we elect actual sets of governments, then that is a perfectly acceptable view to have, just don't pretend it's the system we live in. Consequently realise that if a government in coalition fails, it does not mean the choices that you have made differ.

You still elected the same MP, the same as everyone else in the country, and those MPs still should have the right decide on whether to try a different government and cleanly continue the governance of the country, or whether it's time to get the view of the electorate.

So what is a fixed term parliament for?

A fixed term parliament exists for one purpose alone...certainty. Certainty that an election will take place at a regular time, and certainty that a government, individual OR parliament should have necessary leave to disrupt that time table. The reason for this is to take away from those in power the ability to increase their power through opportunistic manipulation of the constitution in this country.

If you want this certainty, and this shift in power away from those that hold it, then you have to accept that this does...as the name suggests...mean a government will be more likely to stay in power regardless of the ups and downs of their administration.

Germany does this by not allowing for dissolution, you can no confidence the government but only if you have a replacement coalition to take the outgoing executive's place. Scotland tries to achieve it by having a super-majority rule for dissolution, implemented by Labour, of 66% of MPs, combined with a safety time-out that means if no government can be formed in 28 days an election must take place.

Others cite Canada that, due to their constitution not allowing the removal of the power of the leader of the country to call an election, doesn't have a process to dissuade the dissolution of parliament. These people seem to fail to see that Canada is the prime example of how the practice of fixing election dates is pointless, as their leader basically chose himself to ignore the fixed date the Canadian system had set.

Whilst a single person, or a simple majority of 50%+1, can force a dissolution of parliament the whole reason for a fixed term parliament is undermined so much as to make it pointless.

I don't mind what your view is within this...but I think we need to have an honest discussion with each other as to what the best system is. For the record I believe that fixed term parliaments don't solve as much as they claim to, but that there is definitely scope for moving the power of dissolution to all MPs rather than just the Prime Minister.

But if you're sitting there simultaneously thinking that you support fixed term parliaments, but that you can have such a system without locking both the House of Commons and the public out of an easy route to force dissolution, then you need to wake up. At best you're wishing for two different things that can't happen together, at worst you are fooling yourself as to what you are really looking for.

To those that are against governments being able to fall and other-ones take their place, as decided by the people we elected to represent us within a fixed time frame, even if you supposedly and oxymoronically agree with a fixed time frame, you need to make the case that fixed parliaments aren't how you see this country being run...that you want to know that if a government has failed that we, the public, get to punish or congratulate MPs and parties directly through another election.

To those that are for the fixed term parliament plan, and are perhaps defending the 55%...you need to go further. If we are going to have fixed terms, it needs to be FIXED. 55% is no good, it allows an easy opt out, and isn't future proof against future majority governments. The Scotland system is an example right there for us to take from, 66% threshold and safety of a timeout...those are the sort of things we need if we're going to take fixed terms seriously.

This is the future of our reform, and if we're going to use our time bickering over a figure such as 55%, or even IMPLEMENT a 55% super-majority that would still allow the ruling government to break the fixed nature of a parliamentary term, then we are just wasting parliamentary time that could be better spent doing meaningful, non-token changes. If we want new politics, then we need to stop arguing in such a diversionary old politics manner. Progress and change is something we all need to embrace, not just our politicians.