Saturday, 7 February 2015
The Fixed Term Parliament.
In my view the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 is by far and away the greatest achievement of the Liberal Democrats in this coalition. I believe it ranks with the Secret Ballot Act of 1872, the extension of the franchise to women on equal terms with men in 1928, and the limitations to the powers of the House of Lords in 1911 and 1928, as a major step in Britain's slow progression to a fairer democracy
The situation before 2011, when the existing prime minister could call an election when he (or for one period, she) thought he had the best chance of winning was an intolerable affront to fairness. In what other circumstances would one of the contenders in a contest be permitted to fire the starting pistol? So all credit to the Liberal Democrat negotiators for their success in wrenching this prize from the leader of the major party as a condition of joining a coalition.
Astonishingly this achievement does not seem to figure in any of the proposed Liberal Democrat election literature that I've seen so far. I suppose focus groups tell our election gurus that voters are bogged down with concerns about jobs, the cost of living and the state of the NHS, and that such abstruse concerns with the constitution don't resonate "on the doorstep." So there is little point in flaunting our constitutional success: we must stick with bread and butter issues.
I expect the same was said in the struggle for the secret ballot and votes for women. Our leaders should have more courage and trumpet this achievement to the skies.
It is, of course, a quirk of our constitution that the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which requires a two-thirds majority in the Commons if the five year term is to be abandoned, can, like any other law, by overturned by a simple majority. Many suspect that, if as is likely, this year's election results in another balanced parliament, the largest minority party (probably Labour if they can stop making stupid mistakes) will form a minority government and then, in the autumn, propose that the Act be overturned and call another election in which they hop to win a majority (as Harold Wilson did in 1974, without then, of course, the necessity of overturning a Parliament Act).
However, I think it is unlikely that such a move would be successful. MPs in marginal seats will be desperate to hang on to them rather than put them at risk, the second in the minority stakes is unlikely to be keen, all will be exhausted by electioneering and all but the Tories will be short of money. Consequently I believe it will be difficult to obtain even a simple majority to overturn the Act and most practical and surest way forward will be another coalition.
Although the outcome of this election is the most uncertain since the war, a forecast by the psephologist who got things right in both 2005 and 2010, Professor Paul Whiteley of Exeter University, and Director the the British Election Study from 2001 to 2012 currently predicts this outcome:
Liberal Democrats: 48
With such a result a Liberal Democrat - Labour coalition would would be possible, with 339 seats and a majority over all others of 14. Another Liberal Democrat coalition with the Tories would also be possible, but with a "tiny" majority.
Fingers crossed that Professor Whiteley is not too far off the mark. There's everything for Liberal Democrats to play for. Let's hope for some decent policies, thorough preparation of the terms and conditions for joining any government, and agreement now with other parties for sufficient time after the election, whatever the result, to form a government with a positive and progressive programme put forward by parties who thoroughly understand what has been agreed and within what parameters the new coalition must work.