Prior to the passing of the Act the Prime Minister had the power to decide when to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. It was in fact the exercise of the Royal Prerogative on the Prime Minister’s advice to Her Majesty – just the kind of ‘undemocratic’ power to which many Liberal Democrats are opposed. Two consequences flowed from that power: first, the threat of an election was often sufficient to persuade recalcitrant MPs to behave themselves; and secondly, it made the Prime Minister of the day think twice about calling a general election mid-term as he would run the risk of losing it. In 1973 Edward Heath called a snap election on the issue of ‘Who runs Britain the Government or the Trade Unions?’ The electorate gave its answer: it was not Edward Heath. There was further the danger to a Prime Minister who hung on too long until the very end of the five year term.
The 2011 Act provides that the election is to take place on the 7th May 2015 – and every five years after that. The result has been electioneering since the party conferences in Autumn 2014; whereas under the previous regime the period of electioneering was of necessity curtailed by the brevity of an election. That meant that election issues had to be crystallised sharply and quickly. Not so any more. The parties are, and have been, engaged in a kind of political trench warfare. Charge and counter charge descending into unnecessary insults; new policies invented on the hoof; positively misleading statements irresponsibly made; more money to be spent on this or that. In short anything which the parties think will earn them votes. Then the media have had plenty of time to turn the election into show business; so we have issues about election debates, most of which have been dull and unhelpful to voters. The opinion polls industry has been in overdrive for months, leading politicians and commentators to discuss various possible alliances after the election , on the doubtful footing that the polls are accurate and reliable. Thus the waters have been muddied and voters distracted by this kind of political speculation.
In Parliament nothing much had been happening before the dissolution at the end of March; government activity has been reduced. MPs and ministers are preoccupied with preserving their seats and their salaries. Under the previous regime the business of government and Parliament went on until the election was called normally with a short three week campaign. Now the time and cost of MPs is wasted while electioneering is in full flood for many months.
Most importantly this lengthy campaign period has left voters under informed and befuddled, not knowing whom to believe and thoroughly disenchanted with politicians and the process. Nine months campaigning on this election have turned voters against the political system. So the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, instead of enhancing respect for our democracy, has severely damaged it. This election has shown what ill considered tinkering with the constitution can do. The Act should be repealed; the previous system should be restored; those responsible for the problem should be consigned to their well earned place in oblivion.
* Stanley Brodie QC is a barrister at Blackstone Chambers. He is co-author of Politeia’s publication Magistrates Work! Restoring local justice and author of The Cost to Justice: Government policy and the Magistrates’ Courts.