Five-year fix

Nick Clegg's proposals for 5-year fixed terms will put Britain at odds with most democratic countries. The proposals were not even Lib Dem policy.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill passed its second reading last night bringing the House of Commons one step closer to holding general elections just once every five years. The move would put Britain out of step with most democratic countries.

Fixed-term parliaments, which were supported by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in their election manifestos, are clearly a step forward by removing “an anti-democratic constitutional anachronism” whereby the Prime Minister can choose to call an election at a beneficial moment. But the 5-year length proposed by the Coalition puts Britain at odds with most other democratic countries.

Of 32 countries surveyed by Left Foot Forward, which use fixed-term parliaments, just five have 5-year terms: France, Italy (which in practice holds elections, on average, every 3.5 years), Ireland, Luxembourg, and Cyprus. Twenty-three countries have 4-year terms, three have 3-year terms (including Australia) while the United States holds 2-year terms for the House of Representatives. Professor Robert Hazell, Director of UCL’s constitution unit, has commented:

“a five year term is long by comparison with most other parliamentary systems.”

The 5-year proposal is not even Lib Dem policy. The House of Commons Library’s Research Paper on the Bill reveals that:

“The Liberal Democrats have been committed to introducing fixed-term parliaments for some time. A policy paper agreed at their 2007 party conference argued in favour of four-year fixed-terms…

“On 10 October 2007 a Fixed Term Parliament Bill was introduced by the former Liberal Democrat Member David Howarth, again providing for four year fixed terms.”

In defence, Nick Clegg says that, “Five years is the established period of time” – an odd statement given that a full five year terms has only been held on four occasions since the Second World War: 1959-64, 1987-92, 1992,97, and 2005-10.

Elsewhere the Coalition have been accused of an “abuse of power” for announcing that there would not be a Queen’s Speech until spring 2012. Scottish and Welsh MPs are also concerned that Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections will fall on the same day in 2015 and every subsequent 20 years.

The simple solution is 4-year fixed terms. A proposal bringing Britain into line with democratic best practice and resolving the devolution issue.

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