Thursday 20 April 2017

Searching for the silver lining

It has long struck me as a strange sort of democracy which gives the incumbent Prime Minister the right to choose the timing of the next election in a way which favours his or her party interest rather than being subject to a pre-set timetable.  The act decreeing that parliaments should be for a fixed term may have been the pragmatic product of a grubby coalition deal in which the Lib Dems appeared to be gaining something in terms of their longer term constitutional agenda, but it did nevertheless appear to put an end to what would be regarded as a very dodgy practice in most of the world.
‘Appear’ turns out to be the operative word, however.  The act left a get-out clause allowing the Prime Minister to propose to parliament that it should dissolve itself.  Now it should be fairly obvious that no Prime Minister is going to use that clause unless he or she sees advantage in doing so; and that’s why the two-thirds majority required is of all MP’s, not just those voting.  So unless the government of the day has the sort of overwhelming majority which might just result from this cynical act, an opposition has only to sit on its hands for the proposal to fail.  Had the Labour Party followed the example of the SNP, there would have been no early election unless the Prime Minister decided to propose a vote of no confidence in her own government, a spectacle which many of us might rather have enjoyed.
The act was supposed to provide protection against precisely that which it has now facilitated.  It has turned out to be meaningless in practice – another much-vaunted Lib Dem ‘gain’ from coalition which is worthless in reality.  And the cause of that comes right back to the confrontational and superficial nature of UK politics.  The main opposition party is so much more afraid of being seen to be afraid than it is of being annihilated that it has voted, more or less en bloc, for getting itself culled and for handing power to the Tories for decades to come.  Yes, of course, the right wing press would have pilloried them if they had not supported calling an election; but they were going to find other issues on which to do that anyway.  And they are going to do precisely that mercilessly over the next 7 weeks.
We can be certain that the main thing we will hear from Labour over the coming weeks is that we need to protect services from the Tories.  But allowing the Tories to call an election at a time of their own choosing, when all the indications are that the result will be a much bigger majority for the Tories, is a very strange way of providing greater protection for anyone.  If the outcome is as currently appears probable, the Labour Party will have succeeded, wholly unnecessarily, in making itself irrelevant for the next decade or two.  It is not inconceivable that it could even end up with less than half the seats in Wales.
The polls could all be wrong, of course.  Corbyn could yet succeed in making his case with the public as effectively as he did with his party’s membership in two leadership elections.  And May has managed to make herself look shifty and untrustworthy by saying one thing and then reversing her position on a range of issues.  Perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic about the probable outcome for Englandandwales - or perhaps I should just focus my mind on the probable advantage for the cause of the independentistas in Scotland.  There has to be a silver lining somewhere in all this.


Democritus said...

Opposing an election not just looks like but logically implies not trusting the people. This is never a viable position, esp when an election within 8 weeks in inevitable anyway.

John Dixon said...

I understand the way in which opposing an election would be interpreted; but that merely highlights the nonsense of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. If the opposition will always feel obliged to support a government seeking an early election (even if it leads to their own annihilation) - which is the implication of what you say - then the act might as well not exist.

Of course, strictly speaking, it wasn't necessary for anyone to oppose holding an election - all they had to do was sit on their hands and let the Tories lose. They could then, at a time of their choosing - immediately if they wished - have tabled a motion of no confidence, thereby forcing the Tories either to express no confidence in their own government or else to abstain and not express an opinion either way. In either event, it changes the starting point for a campaign.

But that's just playing games; the real question is, or should be, this: How do we limit the power of any Prime Minister to call elections at a time of their choosing and for their own advantage, whilst still allowing an early election when one becomes necessary because the government can no longer transact its business? Personally, I believe that a key part of the answer to that is Proportional Representation which generally leads to the possibility of forming an alternative government for the rest of the remaining parliamentary term without requiring a new election. And that should be backed up by the option of a new election when (a) the government loses a vote of confidence and (b) no other party/group of parties can form a government which can win a vote of confidence. It's the 'winner takes all' result of FPTP which requires the clause which May has triggered to call an election; but it's the same system which makes that clause a meaningless protection against PMs seeking political advantage.