Is 55% too low?


Analysis by UCL’s Constitution Unit suggests that fears over the Lib-Con government’s 55 per cent threshold for a successful dissolution resolution. But a fixed-term parliament of five years would be “long by comparison with most other [parliamentary] systems”.

Yesterday’s coalition agreement of the Liberal Conservative government said:

“legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years.  This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”

The Guardian today quotes Scott Styles, a senior lecturer in law at Aberdeen University, who described the move as “dangerous”. He went on to say:

“This is a major and fundamental alteration in our constitution; what is being changed is not a right of the PM but a power of the Commons. The British constitution is very simple: he who commands the confidence of the House is PM, he who loses that confidence must resign.

“I simply do not see how such a rule is credible or can be enforced: a majority is a majority is 51%; not 55% or 60% or 80%.”

Meanwhile constitutional expert Peter Hennessy, of Queen Mary University of London University, told BBC News:

“Fifty-five per cent of MPs needed for a government to lose a confidence vote – I am not sure that’s a very sensible change.

“The tradition is that one [vote] is enough and I wouldn’t tinker with that. I would leave that well alone. It looks as if you are priming the pitch, doctoring it a bit. Not good. It’s meant to be a different politics, new politics.”

But in a briefing note on the proposed changes prepared for Left Foot Forward by UCL’s Constitution Unit, Robert Hazel writes:

“The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition agreement proposes a 55 per cent threshold before Parliament can be dissolved. This is intended to strengthen the hand of the Lib Dems: Cameron could not call an early election without the consent of his coalition partners, because the Conservatives command only 47 per cent of the votes in the Commons.

“Some commentators appear to have confused a dissolution resolution moved by the government, and a confidence motion tabled by the opposition. On no confidence motions tabled by the opposition parties, the normal 50% threshold should continue to apply.”

But while fixed term parliaments are becoming “increasingly common”, five year terms would be “long by comparison with most other [parliamentary] systems”. Robert Hazel writes:

“Australia and New Zealand both have three-year maximum terms. The legislatures of Canada and many of its provinces have four-year fixed terms, as do most Australian states. The devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have four-year fixed terms. Ireland’s lower house has a five-year maximum, as in the UK. So a five year term is long by comparison with most other Westminster systems.”

All this begs the question of whether 55 per cent is too low a threshold for a dissolution resolution. If the point of a fixed term parliament is that the governing party cannot dissolve parliament to suit itself, perhaps the threshold should be two-thirds as in both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

The Constitution Unit of UCL has prepared a longer briefing note on fixed term parliaments.

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  • http://twitter.com/frabcus/status/13922773693 Francis Irving

    Left Foot Forward has links to UCL Constituency Unit briefing on why #noto55 is wrong http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/05/is-55-too-low/

  • http://twitter.com/owenblacker/status/13923122396 Owen Blacker

    RT @frabcus: Left Foot Forward has links to UCL Constituency Unit briefing on why #noto55 is wrong http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/05/is-55-too-low/

  • http://twitter.com/flashboy/status/13923462070 Tom Phillips

    RT @frabcus: Left Foot Forward has links to UCL Constituency Unit briefing on why #noto55 is wrong http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/05/is-55-too-low/

  • http://twitter.com/shoozographer/status/13924120910 Laura Goodman

    Left Foot Forward has links to UCL Constituency Unit briefing on why #noto55 is wrong http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/05/is-55-too-low/

  • Henrique

    “It’s a campaigning success for all the pro-democracy groups – and a reflection of what already happens in Scotland and Wales – which seems to have surprised literally everyone inside the M25 and/or who doesn’t usually give a toss about politics. Classic case of decisions being made by those who turn up, maybe.”

    Yes, we simply must endeavour to be more like Scotland and Wales, with their long and proud history of effective democratic politics.

    Coalition governments are about as undemocratic as it gets.

  • El Sid

    Personally I’d favour something along the lines of 3 years unless it was the first term of a government, in which case it was 5 years. It always takes a while for a government to get going, and for the new policies to take effect, whereas they tend to run out of steam after 8+ years.

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  • http://www.jacquiemartin.co.uk Jacquie Martin

    The wording of this proposal is not clear and is confusing everyone, including eminent academics. The intention may be 51% for no confidence and 55% for consensual decision to dissolve, but this does not say that. It’s something that will definitely need to be clarified when drafting the legislation. The courts are full of cases where the law appears to say one thing but someone else has a different interpretation. Hence lawyers, particularly barristers, make a lot of money analysing and or but.

  • Modicum

    @Kevin:

    “I thought that changes to parliament should be endorsed by ballot/referendum of the voting populace this move smacks of dictatorship to me”

    Dictatorship is a bit of an exaggeration. No previous change to parliament has ever been put to a referendum. The only way to ensure referendums is to have a written constitution. Oddly the Tories, who believe in referendums when it suits them, are totally opposed to a written constitution.

  • Elaine

    As I said at the end of longer discussion on Liberal Conspiracy, if Labour had done this, we would already have the Daily Mail and Telegraph calling it a Hugo Chavez move. The raging against Labour Chavista would be ramped up by cartoons and endless articles.
    Constitutional change requires a mandate from the electorate. Therefore, at the least, it needs wide and deep discussion in the election campaign so that democracy is served well.
    Labour(upfront) and LibDem(three levels down) mentioned fixed term parliaments–but that was it: no detail, no substantive discussion. Nothing in any debate Iheard, any leaflet I received.
    The justifications that people (especially LDs) are now putting forward are shoddy politics: specific to this coalition situation. That is not why you institute constitutional change.
    There are legitimate arguments to be made for fixed terms. We just did not hear a word about this in the campaign.

  • Modicum

    The programme for government states:

    “legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”

    This isn’t stating that it will take 55% to pass a vote of no confidence and such a change would be highly unlikely.

    There seems to be some confusion in that some commenters think that a vote of no confidence automatically leads to a dissolution. As I understand it a vote of no confidence means that either (1) the PM must resign or (2) he must dissolve parliament. So I take it that in future the PM will no longer automatically have the second option.

    It’s not clear to me what would happen if the PM resigned but refused to advise the Queen on a successor. She would probably have to get politically involved and invite someone to form a government. I very much doubt that the new legislation is going to codify the complex conventions around choosing a Prime Minister (that would be quite a radical step) so we will probably have to wait and see what new conventions are created under the new system over time.

  • Modicum

    @Elaine

    Just out of curiosity, do you support a written constitution? Because I think it is wishful thinking to expect politicians to engage in “wide and deep discussion” or to have a referendum unless they are obliged to do so by a constitution.

  • Mr. Sensible

    I fully support the principle of fixed-turm parliaments, but think this particular move is politically motivated.

    Why 55%? Why not just simple majority?

    I mean, in a fragile situation like this, if the Lib Dems walk away we could end up with a long period of stalemate.

    So, fixed-term parliaments yes, but I think they should be for 4 years, and motions of confidence, no confidence or mutual disolution should be decided by simple majority.

  • Elaine

    Modicum
    I sway towards a written constitution, but am quite open-minded on this issue.

    I think you can still make the argument about the democratic legitimacy of constitutional change without arguing for a written constitution.

    (BTW I was already aware of arrangements in Wales, Scotland and other parliamentary democracies.)

    I don’t think this issue requires a referendum in and of itself, but it is not trivial.

    It should have been very clearly flagged, with different options and specific optons outlined, and been made part of the debate on political reform during the election campaign. One sentence ‘about fixed parliaments’ in a manifesto is insufficient. I think your (Modicum’s) observations render my argument more powerful.

    My point about the Mail and Telegraph is not that it would be a legitimate critique – rather about media bias.

  • http://provisionalbbc.blogspot.com tim f

    This seems crackers.

    Technically you could have 51% consistently voting down everything apart from repeated motions of no confidence, but fall short of the 55% needed for dissolution.

    I fail to see what is wrong with the current system where a motion of no confidence of repeatedly voting down the government effectively forces the PM into dissolving parliament. (I also fail to see the attraction of fixed term parliaments full stop.)

  • http://www.twitter.com/niaccurshi Lee Griffin

    “If passed, the Tories on their own on 47% have a veto on a dissolution.”

    A veto that will only mean anything if the no confidence was against the Lib/Con coalition. In which case…what’s the problem, as that is precisely the sort of thing you should expect in a FIXED TERM parliament. People are talking about this as if it’s the Tories being protected…it’s not, it’s the fixed nature of parliament that is being held up to allow a different potential government to be formed out of the people’s choice of MPs.

  • http://twitter.com/ellieprice/status/13941401528 Ellie Price 艾櫟

    @GeorginaRannard there's also a lively debate here on left foot forward http://bit.ly/d3Uc7M some suggesting 55% is too low.

  • http://twitter.com/mjdodd/status/13942012500 Matt Dodd

    @tom_watson Seen these in the comments? http://bit.ly/du6z3a http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/05/is-55-too-low/ May be some confusion…

  • http://twitter.com/mjdodd/status/13942383711 Matt Dodd

    Is #noto55 wrong? 55% is threshold for dissolution, not confidence. Confidence stays at 50%+1. http://bit.ly/bCX5as http://bit.ly/cbQ1ez

  • http://twitter.com/matgb/status/13943660961 Mat Bowles

    @leongreen So how do you explain the 66% rule that Labour introduced in Scotland? SRSLY, Will Straw's right http://bit.ly/95A5Ff

  • http://twitter.com/matgb/status/13943482619 Mat Bowles

    @pickwick We discussed it on here, I thought @loveandgarbage was going to. However, http://bit.ly/95A5Ff does the job. By Jack Straw's son

  • http://twitter.com/amandaramsay/status/13964137705 Amanda Ramsay
  • http://twitter.com/wdjstraw/status/13965911302 Will Straw

    @RichardAngell I'd set it at 2/3s for dissolution and keep 50% for confidence as in Scotland and Wales http://bit.ly/9Kt7YV

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  • Elaine

    Sunder Katwala has posted on this at NextLeft. http://www.nextleft.org/2010/05/libdems-destroy-defence-of-55-rule.html
    Rennard’s and Stunnel’s justifications expose the shoddy politics of this. AS

    I said above, you do not enact constitutional change to meet a particular situation, and certainly not as a crude party political fix. Of course, (I think and, at least now) it cannot be binding on future Parliaments, so it has a very dubious status as constitutional change, but is a clear change to the constitution — even if a temporary one.

    The fact that fixed term parliaments widely exist (and are the historical trend) and that higher thresholds exist elsewhere (whether in Scotland or elsewhere) is utterly irrelevant to the ‘legitimacy’ of this move. These are valid points to raise and assess when you campaign for constitutional change.

    Re Henrique’s point: “It’s a campaigning success for all the pro-democracy groups” — No it isn’t. Aside from political nerds(like me), you would be very hard-pressed to find anyone who has seriously considered this. If you look at all the political reform campaigning groups’ websites (aside from the exclusively LD(oh -okay one Tory) Campaign for Fixed Parliaments, the fixed term proposal is very low down in a search, and I certainly cannot find any proposals for 55% threshold in UK parliament.

    For all those ‘pragmatists’ who say it cannot work in practice. Of course, no government can survive ‘politically’ all its legislation being voted down, but why give (in this context-specific) the Tories a ‘constitutional’ lifeline?

    If this is a marker of serious political ‘reform’ or a ‘new politics,’ it is a very shoddy beginning. It is shabby ‘politricking.’

  • http://photoexmachina.wordpress.com/ photo ex machina

    Don’t worry, be happy. :D

  • http://demokratia-zakg.blogspot.com Zak Golombeck

    But if the governing party / parties were to vote to dissolve parliament, they would also be voting against their PM.

  • Matthew

    “Speaking on a visit to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Cameron said there needed to be a “mechanism” to dissolve Parliament and the procedure he was proposing would help to secure a “strong and stable government” over the next five years.”

    This is perhaps telling. Cameron sees it as supporting the stability of his government, not of the parliament, which his surely what the 55% rule advocates are saying?

  • http://twitter.com/ed_clayton/status/13981113269 Ed Clayton

    Is 55% too low? Yes, says Will Straw – http://bit.ly/d3Uc7M

  • http://twitter.com/teh_walrus/status/13981624762 Joe Jordan

    RT @ed_clayton: Is 55% too low? Yes, says Will Straw – http://bit.ly/d3Uc7M

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  • Ron Burns

    What an excellent post by Elaine above. There a couple of things about all of this which I think are interesting. This strikes me as being one of the more significant items in the coalition agreement, yet there is still a lack of clarity and a great deal of ambiguity about what is written down in the document. The agreement was therefore undertaken in the absence of information of considerable importance. “It will be alright on the night” doesn’t seem to be the strongest argument for a change of this sort, and one starts to wonder how well informed the remainder of the agreement is.

    The argument that 55% is too low seems to me to be mind-bogglingly feeble. It admits that the actual figure is arbitrary (but not, of course, random!) so why not 66%? If 66%, why not 77% or 88% or indeed 100%? We could then send them all home and save a fortune in salary and expenses plus using the Palace of Westminster as a hotel.

    yet there is no evidence of a presentation The agreement was therefore undertaken in the absence of information which you seem to recognise as being critically important. “It will be alright on the night” doesn’t seem to be the strongest argument for a change of this sort.

  • Ron Burns

    Apologies for the finger-trouble in my previous post. The last paragraph should of course have been deleted!

  • SadButMadLad

    To all the Labour supporting commentors on here, what do you say about the Scottish situation which was imposed by a Labour governemnt. In Scotland the rule is 66% not 55% as it would be in the UK. Typical hypocrisy.

    The rule is for the dissolution of parliament and allows MPs to vote for it. Currently only the PM can do this. So its a good thing and puts the power into the hands of the MPs to decide.

    A vote of no confidence still only requires a 50% +1 vote. However losing a vote of confidence doesn’t by default to a dissolution. The losing government would have to try and sort out a majority coalition or minority goverment and if it couldn’t do that would MPs be able to vote for a dissolution.

  • Ron Burns

    Had you done the briefest research on this issue rather than post a partisan insult you would have discovered that there is a significant difference in that the Scottish legislation includes a automatic timeout. While you correctly observe that after a vote of no confidence being carried a “losing government would have to try and sort out a majority coalition or minority government and if it couldn’t do that would MPs be able to vote for a dissolution” you unfortunately fail to notice that the said MPs would only succeed on a 55% vote. What if they can’t reach that proportion.

  • John77

    What this means is that if Cameron loses a vote of confidence he cannot call an election unless he gets 55% of MPs to agree to that so someone else takes over. So the government can change without a new election as it did in 1924 when King George appointed Ramsay MacDonald as PM after Baldwin lost a vote of confidence.

  • Paul

    @Roy Burns
    It’s disingenuous at best to claim that the Scottish legislation has a time-out clause but the Lib-Con legislation doesn’t. We don’t know what the legislation will or won’t contain. All we have so far is the briefest of outlines with zero details. If the actual full proposal doesn’t contain a time-out clause, I’ll eat my voting card.

  • Ron Burns

    ..and as I posted above Paul, that is also of concern to me. The implication is that the coalition agreement was concluded while important issues remained unspecified.

  • Paul

    Yes. It’s completely unacceptable that they didn’t write five years worth of legislation in full, in that handful of of days between the election and taking office.

  • Ron Burns

    Perhaps you need to research the process of coalition formation in those polities where it is common. You touch on, but miss, the point: drawing up a coalition agreement is too complex and important to be done in three days, particularly when the manifesto and campaign defined positions of the parties involved were so antithetical. The agreement (draft agreement?) was put into effect even before the last leg of the LibDem triple lock was in place I believe. LibDem membership are meeting today. Railroading perhaps?

  • Baig

    Dictators, that’s what Cameron and Clegg are. This is a dictatorial move and is not liberal and is not democratic!

    They want to force the locks on the new bedroom they are sharing, so no one can throw them out, even they start fighting.

    this is like getting married without having the option to divorce.

  • Anatole

    I feel stronger than ever that the anti-55%-ers have very much misread the electorate on certain key things. First and foremost is this idea of “wanting more democracy”, which I think is a very typical example of a concept which has its roots in popular sentiment, but which is twisted by those in “the Village” into something which suits them and their agenda.

    Simply put, I don’t think any member of the public has any desire whatsoever to spend more time and the ballot box under any form. This includes General and local elections of course; but I think also applies to referenda, recalls, primaries or any other form of choice which involves going to cast a piece of paper for one side or another. The Great British public are cynical, caustic and lazy, even if they are perhaps more educated than we sometimes give them credit for. They see elections as very little other than a chance for politicians to preen and self-publicise. Of course, once in a while they enjoy the chance to throw out a government and change it for another that might offer something different; but overall, even most of the “in between” elections are totally unnecessary and a waste of time and money – witness 2001, 1987 and so on. Of course I am not arguing for ending the 5 year term limits but what I am arguing for is that the starting point of considering all this is that the public regard electioneering as an appalling spectacle in almost every case, and increasingly with the demise of partisan allegiances, even any overt partisanship or tribalism is marked down. This is the world we live in.

    What the public want is two things: firstly, an “adult” attitude where MPs deal with the hand they are dealt, and go away and bloody well just “get on with it”. After the election, no-one wants to hear any more from politicians for a long, long time about what they are doing, what they have done, what the other lot are doing or anything else – unless a crisis happens. Secondly, what they would like (and this is one offshoot of the expenses scandal but actually started long before that) is transparency and clarity, if not ‘accountability’, to be able to access information about what is happening if they want, even if they know they will not want to access it themselves. They want to be blindly happy in the knowledge that someone else, perhaps the press whose papers they don’t buy anymore, is keeping the government ‘accountable’. But they do not want to be involved in this process themselves.

    Yet hilarious the political classes seem to have interpreted this in an entirely different way, and some are putting forward the idea that what people what is more time spent at the ballot box; more time listening to politicians talk about themselves or about issues such as the constitution or indeed parliamentary reform, which no-one cares about; more time in the media attacking each other as though somehow talking about things is the accountability that people want from MPs who are paid to consider and pass legislation. People do not want politics, that is the sad fact of today. I agree that politicians are seen to be irrelevant due to the lack of major achievements but having said that, the answer is not to try and flog a dead horse and get them involved. It is to win on a manifesto which promises change and delivers it in a real, tangible manner. The answer to irrelevance is not more frequent elections, given that half of the ones we have already fought are extraneous. The idea that a reduction in the number of elections historically is proof that these reforms are bad is so detached from reality that I cannot even begin to express my opposition to it. People want less ‘democracy’.

    Coming back to the parliamentary reform details, I therefore continue to support Supermajorities for dissolution of Parliament and indeed feel that at 55%, it just does not go far enough. A good two-thirds should be required because what you want is for anyone suggesting they want an early election, to go away, take a couple of aspirin and really ask themselves what the devil they are doing. Hung parliaments may or may not be here to stay; but the fact is that the public will have no sympathy whatsoever for a group of parliamentarians who seem not to be able to progress things just because they can’t get on and are too tribal to work together in parliament to pass legislation or get a budget through. They do not want to have the huge and useless imposition of another election thrust upon them just because politicians can’t be bothered to find the compromise necessary to make government work. In some cases of course it might really be necessary: but in those cases you really need a consensus from the whole of parliament, and not just a bare slender majority, to have the moral authority to ask the public for their forgiveness in demanding it. A split house really is not good enough and the public will be angry – very much so – at an election happening just because one half of the House want it.

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  • James Stewart

    @ Baig – I don;t think you can call Cameron and Clegg dictators. Didn’t we learn our lesson with Blair and the disgraceful act of getting rid of him under the circumstances that Brown devised and planned for years.

    James Stewart
    From: OnlineShareTading.com

  • http://www.buywheyproteinreview.com Kent

    It’s all an Illusion! The entire political process has become nothing but a pawn to the corporations. The Queen, the Vatican, and DC… Ugg!

  • Dan

    “It’s all an Illusion! The entire political process has become nothing but a pawn to the corporations. The Queen, the Vatican, and DC… Ugg!”

    +1 It’s really sad that things have gotten to this point. Literally everything is owned and run by big business.

    -Dan @ Sea Eagle Boats

  • http://www.inflatablekayaker.com/ Amber

    I agree with you Dan, everything today is literally all about big corporations affecting the decisions of political leaders on all countries.

  • Shong

    To have a fixed term parliament, is a tricky question, do we want politics like the USA where campaigning for the next election starts right after the present election, or do we want a parliament where the government can get on with it without distracton.The distinction between a no confidence motion and a dissolution motion is a misleading one. The whole point of 55% is to change the nature of a no confidence motion so that it does not have the effect it had in 1979.Anyways, thanks for sharing this.

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