Fixed Parliaments

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 4th February 1987.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 3:41 pm, 4th February 1987

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a fixed five-year term for the duration of Parliament. I shall not delay the House—I do not want to stand between it and its weekly local government Bill.

Under my Bill, there would be a set date for a general election. Other than at the end of five years, a dissolution would be granted only if the Government of the day lost a formal vote of confidence.

Although present Parliaments can run for a five-year term, it is unusual for that to happen. Since the war, only the Government of 1959 has run the full term. Indeed, the average life of a Government since 1945 has been three years and five months.

My Bill would require the Government, given an adequate working majority by the electorate, to serve out the full term. The Governments of 1945—[Interruption.] I suggest that my hon. Friends cool themselves long enough to listen to my presentation. The Governments of 1945, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1966, 1970, 1979 and 1983 all had or have such working majorities, thus making an election before the end of five years technically unnecessary. Yet only the Government of 1959 served their time. We do not yet know whether the present Government, with their fairly massive majority, will do likewise.

In the case of a hung Parliament, or where a Government majority did not survive subsequent by-elections, a defeat on a formal confidence vote would precipitate a general election. Thus, my Bill would not automatically lock a Government into coalition against their wishes. A Government in such a particularly tenuous position could, if they rejected coalition, attempt to govern, and it would then be for Parliament to decide whether to give them support. A defeat on a formal confidence motion would, as I have already said, necessitate an election.

I do not disguise the fact that my Bill would take away the single, most important power enjoyed by a Prime Minister—the power, exercised alone, to determine the date of a general election. Such power is more obviously used to try to wrong-foot the Opposition, but it can he, and indeed it has been, used to threaten disaffected elements within the governing party of the day. I believe that in a democracy such personal power is overweening and undesirable.

It has become almost commonplace for Governments to manipulate the economy in an attempt to create the most favourable circumstances before making a dash for the polls. In party political terms, that is perfectly understandable, and even grudgingly admired if it works. However, such emphasis on short-term electoral fortunes contributes to cynicism among the electorate and creates instability within the economy.

With a fixed Parliament, there would be an end to the debilitating and unsettling media speculation about the date of the election. Such speculation weakens every Government, even those with substantial majorities, and by doing so eventually forces a Prime Minister's hand as the options visibly run out.

In recent months, both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have made pleas for more long-term planning within the economy. Yet the uncertainty over the election date makes long-term economic planning exceedingly difficult both domestically and internationally. Fixed Parliaments are normal practice in many other countries, including some of the most economically successful. In Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States of America elections cannot be called before their determined time. In West Germany, Belgium and Sweden, Parliaments can be dissolved early but only on a vote of no confidence. As I have already said, my Bill proposes a similar procedure for our own Parliament.

Even with fixed Parliaments, a Government would still seek to coincide economic success with the date of a general election. However, it would be done openly and the electorate would be equally aware if a Government stage-managed a defeat in a confidence vote.

If the House gives me leave to introduce it, the Bill will bring greater political stability, make economic planning less fraught, and restore to Parliament some of the power that has been taken away over the years by the Executive.