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The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill: Is This the Reform Which Is Needed?

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The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill: Is This the Reform Which Is Needed?

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The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill: Is This the Reform Which Is Needed?

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill today receives its second reading. This Bill sets out for the first time in British legislation that general elections are to be held every five years. The legal power to dissolve parliament prior to the end of each five-year parliamentary term has, until now, always been exercised by Prime Ministers armed with the Royal Prerogative as the device for setting the date of the next general election. This Bill, if enacted, will change this situation.

The Coalition is trying hard to present itself as one of the Great Reforming governments of history, in a situation where it has come to power with no mandate from the electorate and no legitimacy. It is creating confusion over what it represents while pushing through its programme of paying the rich, cutting and wrecking the social economy, along with further militarisation and war.

The context of the Bill is the current manifestation of the cartel-party system that dominates the political process, where the big parties both collude and viciously compete to maintain their position of power and privilege, while the electorate is excluded from any say. The contradictions have sharpened to the extent that a hung parliament has resulted, leading to the machinations over the formation of the Coalition and resulting in the Programme for Government of Cameron and Clegg in which not even the activists of the two parties have had any say.

The context is also one of growing disaffection with this political system and the search for an alternative. The aim is the consolidation of the cartel-party system in this situation and as such, the Bill is representative of the pragmatism prevailing in Britain's ruling circles. It is fully in line with the Conservative Party election manifesto, which promised "a new kind of government" and made the self-contradictory pledge that "the use of the Royal Prerogative" – the remnants of feudal absolutism effectively exercised by the Prime Minister – will be "subject to greater democratic control".

As House of Commons Research Paper 10/54 on the Bill says, "a fixed-term parliament offers the Coalition Government a certain amount of stability as it creates an expectation that parliament will run a full term". The Coalition, or some flavour of it, will remain in power come what may. It is relevant in this regard that the choice of five-year fixed terms is relatively long in historical terms.

Will such legislation solve any of the problems of democracy and the use of the Royal Prerogative? At present, the Queen dissolves parliament and calls a general election. The Bill ends this prerogative power, though it also states that it does not affect her power to prorogue parliament. The Crown retains the power to summon a new parliament following an election: the Bill does not fix this date.

The Bill sets out the conditions for an early election. An election will take place if a motion to do so is agreed by at least two thirds of MPs, the first time such a "super-majority" would be required. The justification for this is that a simple majority would make it easy for a majority single-party or coalition government to dissolve parliament at will.

However, as the Bill itself would require only a simple majority to amend, the possibility remains that a government, including the present Coalition, could change any of the parameters of or even repeal the Bill before its parliament ends.

An election would also occur if the government loses a motion of no confidence. A fourteen-day period then exists within which an election would be avoided if the House of Commons votes to express confidence. This opens the possibility of some kind of re-arrangement of the government without an election taking place.

What politicking lies in wait? It is not even clear what is understood to be a confidence motion, the concept of which has developed by convention rather than legislation. Research Paper 10/54 points out:

"The ability of the Monarch to prorogue parliament is relevant in such circumstances. Theoretically at least, it would remain possible for an incumbent Prime Minister who had lost a 'no confidence' motion to go to the Queen and ask for a prorogation for 14 days. This would prevent a motion of confidence being passed in any other government and therefore parliament would be dissolved under the Act. The check on this would be that the dissolution would not occur without certification from the Speaker, who might object to providing a certificate under such circumstances. In Canada, the Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to prorogue parliament in December 2008 only days before a confidence motion which he seemed likely to lose. In January 2010 he again sought a prorogation until March, leading to allegations that he wanted to shut down a critical parliamentary inquiry."

In other words, various powers to manipulate the political process are being preserved and new possibilities are being opened up. Errol Mendes, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Ottawa, explained in an article in the Toronto Star that, until the prorogation of the Canadian parliament:

"Apart from the doomed attempts of Charles I to prorogue the British parliament in the 17th century, there was no precedent in any parliamentary democracy anywhere in the world where a democratic parliament was shut down to hide from a vote of confidence."

Now that the precedent has been set, the Coalition's Bill opens the door open to such actions in Britain.

Though presented as a Great Reform, the Bill has to be seen as part of the new arrangements being sought as the party-dominated system descends further into crisis and arbitrary decisions are taken by an increasingly disconnected élite.

This Bill, of major constitutional importance, is currently being rushed through amid allegations of the lack of proper parliamentary scrutiny. In a letter to Nick Clegg, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Graham Allen accused the Deputy Prime Minister of having "denied us any adequate opportunity to conduct this scrutiny".

The question is: who decides? By bringing such things as the implications of a vote of no-confidence from convention and into legislation, it is part of an encroaching codification of Britain's constitutional arrangements. Elements of a written constitution to pragmatically manage the people and the political system are being gradually brought into being without any involvement of the people in the political system!

In the years immediately following the 1832 “Great” Reform Act, which the Lib Dems have made great play with, the Chartists put forward their demand for a fixed-term parliament in order that parliament and its members should be accountable to the people. But this fixed-term was one year only! In force at the time was the Septennial Act, under which the possible duration of parliament had been extended from three to seven years (reduced to five years in the early 20th century), and which demonstrated that Parliament was not the agent of the electorate, nor did the electorate possess any kind of legislative authority.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, which is being explained in terms of doing away with the Prime Minister of the day being able to steal a march on the electorate and the Official Opposition, aims to consolidate sovereignty away from the hands of the people, the electorate, in the name of electoral reform. It is important to realise that objectively political power is being concentrated in the hands of a political elite, and this is happening at a time when the legitimacy of the parliamentary system of “representative democracy” is being questioned and the arbitrary exercise of power is denying the people a say in every aspect of political and economic life as the crisis deepens. It is a cruel joke that this is being done in the name of reform and the limitation of the Royal Prerogative. From the perspective of those who are not part of the disconnected élite, the solution lies in ending the Royal Prerogative altogether, not by affirming that “parliament is sovereign” but by empowering the people. In other words, the issue is not to rescue or perfect the system of parliamentary democracy, in the sense of preserving the old arrangements. The issue of taking the democratic revolution begun in the 17th century through to its conclusion requires a complete renewal of the institutions and processes of governance so that sovereignty is vested in the people, and to ensure that supreme state power, the power to deprive and the power to share, lies not with those whose interest it is to maintain the system dominated by monopoly and finance capital, but with the working class itself. This is the crucial reform which is required for a modern democracy worthy of the term.

WDIE calls on all its activists and sympathisers to involve everyone in discussion on these questions of the political process and constitutional issues, so as to develop conviction over the necessity for the people themselves to become the decision-makers.

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