This evening, I caught the end of the debate on the third reading of the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill in the House of Commons, on BBC Parliament. Whilst the government carried the vote Clegg did seem to fumble on the issue of periodic clashes between future elections to the UK parliament and elections to devolved parliaments and assemblies.
The arguments for and against both the principle and length of fixed term parliaments have been well exercised. Personally I am in favour as I think it is perverse for the Prime Minister to be able to call an election whenever they feel it will benefit them – even if there have been well-cited examples of them making the wrong call. I also prefer 4 years (as it seems do most academics and other constitutional experts) rather than 5 but I’m relatively relaxed about that.
The key issue that the government does need to address, and which I hope the Lords will force them to give due consideration to, is that the country really needs a shared political cycle. Many of the MPs making the case for 4 years raised the point that we could align elections so that elections to parliament and devolved bodies were in different years. The key point here is not the period but the principle that all elections (councils, mayors, police commissioners, devolved bodies as well as parliament) have the same period. If the government really believe that 5 years is a better period than 4, then they should bring forward legislation to put all other elections on a 5 year cycle too.
The overwhelming advantage of a 4 year cycle is that all other elections in the UK (bar those to the European Parliament, which operates on a 5 year cycle) are already on a 4 year cycle. Together with it being the norm (as opposed to the maximum) for parliamentary terms, this means that a 4 year fixed term cycle would bring the least disruption at a time when all public servants have much else to focus their time on.
There is a related problem with the bill. It contains provision for early elections, which is understandable. However, following an early election the next election takes place 5 years later, messing up the cycle. An early election should be a special election for the remainder of the parliamentary term so as to maintain the cycle. Of course there can be a proviso that if there less than, for example, one year, of the parliamentary term remaining, then the early election covers the next parliamentary term – and so the subsequently elected parliament would sit for an extra year. (That’s another reason for keeping the fixed term to 4 years, btw, so that in early election circumstances the maximum would be 5, as now, not 6).
4 years or 5, it’s the government’s call. But they should pick one and align everything to it.