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This election caught us all by surprise - bring back fixed-term parliaments

Richard Wood
June 6, 2024

Two schools of thought have dominated discourse on when the election will take place. Many believed the prime minister would call a May vote to coincide with local elections and rip off the plaster in one go. Others such as myself assumed he would delay until the Autumn to ensure his place in the history books by passing his landmark smoking ban and getting to be prime minister for two whole years.

Most of us were wrong and now July is fast approaching. But let's be honest, we don't really know why Rishi Sunak called the election when he did. Perhaps he is a “numbers man” and is using the fall in inflation to 2.3% as a springboard to launch his campaign. July also gets him out of a summer of bad news ahead of an Autumn campaign. However, with Conservative MPs highly unprepared, as shown by their chaotic selection process, it's more than possible Sunak saw the writing on the wall and just wanted to get the election over with. Whatever the reason, the country goes to the polls on 4 July and we can finally move on from months and months of speculating about election dates.

That all said, it's worth highlighting the absurdity of the Royal Prerogative in this situation. The principle that one individual should decide the date of the election is an out-of-touch notion that gives the incumbent executive a permanent upper hand.

Westminster needs significant reform. Fixing election dates would create a level playing field for all parties and candidates to know when the election is. With fixed-term parliaments, everyone would have equal opportunity to prepare for elections and make arrangements around that. The current situation ultimately gives too much power to one person.

Furthermore, how many column inches have been dedicated to election timing speculation? How many tweets have focused on the debate between whether Sunak would go in Spring or Autumn? Too many.

Speculation in politics, while entertaining on occasion, is a fool's game. One we can do without. The serious point here is that so much oxygen has been wasted talking about election dates rather than matters of policy and substance. Just think of all the times Sunak was asked when he'd call an election and his fudge of an answer that it would be in the second half of this year. And all for nothing.

Speculation in politics, while entertaining on occasion, is a fool's game. Quote

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act wasn't perfect but it provided certainty and created a level playing field for all parties. It even gave parliaments the opportunity to circumvent fixed election dates when appropriate to do so. That we had an early election in 2019 showed the system working, albeit clumsily, with the powers to call an extraordinary General Election in the hands of the legislative not the executive. The next government should look again at fixing election dates.

If we are to return to fixed-term parliaments we should have an honest discussion about term lengths as well. Five-year terms are exhausting and lead to zombie governments that run out of steam. They also mean voters only having a say on who governs them just twice in one decade. Too many elections in a decade can lead to voter fatigue - just look at Brenda from Bristol’s “Not another one” in 2019 - and perpetual campaigns in the US with two-year terms for the House of Representatives. Adopting four-year parliamentary terms would strike a fair balance between accountability and stability.

There are of course other, more pressing matters of electoral reform that this country desperately needs such as a written codified constitution, proportional representation and a democratic upper chamber. There’s also the unnecessary imposition of voter ID, which risks suppressing votes this July.

The UK needs a whole package of political reforms. A new and improved Fixed-term Parliaments Act with fixed four-year terms can be part of that, shifting the balance away from an overpowerful executive. Fixed-term parliaments will provide political certainty and level up our democracy. Britain's next government should consider this reform.

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Richard Wood is a better democracy campaigner and founder of Upgrade Holyrood. He was previously an Electoral Reform Society board member.

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