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UK - Commons - Electoral Timetable

The electoral timetable in Britain has grown out of several pieces of legislation. The Meeting of Parliament Act of 1694 (also known as the Triennial Act) provided that a UK parliamentary general election must be held every three years. This was amended by the Septennial Act of 1715 which extended the parliamentary term to a maximum of seven years.

Between 1715 and 1911 the maximum parliamentary term was seven years. The five-year maximum term was introduced in 1911 by the Parliament Act, as a quid pro quo for reducing the powers of the House of Lords, to ensure that the House of Commons was held accountable to the electorate more frequently. However, in asking for leave to introduce the Parliament Bill, Herbert Asquith, the then Prime Minister, told the House that the reduction to five years would “probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years”.14 The current five-year maximum term was introduced with the expectation that it would probably amount in practice to a four-year term. This expectation was based on the long-standing ability of Prime Ministers to call elections at any time of their choosing.

Parliament was dissolved by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister made his or her choice independently of parliament, government, and often even their closest colleagues in the Cabinet. Dissolution of parliament was the Crown’s prerogative. Theoretically, the Monarch can exercise discretion over whether to grant a request for dissolution by the Prime Minister. The Lascelles principle provided that the Crown may justifiably refuse a request for dissolution where: (1) the existing Parliament was still vital, viable, and capable of doing its job; (2) a General Election would be detrimental to the national economy; [and] (3) he could rely on finding another Prime Minister who could carry on his Government, for a reasonable period, with a working majority in the House of Commons.

There have only been three successful votes of no confidence since the start of the 20th century. On the last two occasions, the government announced the dissolution of Parliament on the following day (October 1924 and March 1979). Following the January 1924 defeat on the Queen’s Speech, however, the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin resigned rather than dissolve Parliament. Parliament need not be dissolved in the case of the resignation or death of the Prime Minister, as made clear by practice and the draft Cabinet Manual. However, the government may choose to call an election in such a case.

The power to determine the date of the election was a source of additional power for the Prime Minister over his colleagues. It enables him to bring into line his ministers and backbenchers. If they threaten to rebel he can in turn threaten them with an early election. John Major as Prime Minister was able to threaten the Maastricht rebels with an early election if they did not fall into line. With fixed term parliaments a Prime Minister could no longer threaten a snap election in this way.

The average term since 1945 has been 3.7 years, although discounting the three occasions on which parliaments lasted less than two years, this rises to 4.3 years. This has remained stable, with an average term length of 4.4 years since October 1974.

It is simplest to use 1979 as a start date for a brief analysis of the precedents, as Parliaments before 1979 were more irregular in length. There had been seven general elections from 1979 to 2010. Four (in 1983, 1987, 2001 and 2005) had been called after four-year Parliaments: all resulted in the return of the incumbent government. Three had been called after five-year Parliaments: two of these (in 1997 and 2010) resulted in the defeat of the incumbent government, the other (in 1992) in its return, but with a much smaller majority.

As Professor Robert Hazell has written: "The balance between four and five years is more even than folk memory might suggest. But those parliaments which lasted for five years did so because the government had become unpopular and did not want to hold an earlier election. The Prime Minister stayed on hoping that his or her party’s luck might change. It did not, save for the case of John Major, who scraped through with a narrow majority in 1992."

Many British governments have governed successfully on a four-year term. Governments that have gone to the polls every four years have in practice been more likely to extend their mandate for a further term, giving them further time to govern. Professor Blackburn suggested to us that when governments have lasted five years between elections, “the last year of every one has been pretty awful”. The Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Ireland Executive are expected to seek a renewed mandate every four years. Practice internationally is varied, but Australia and New Zealand, both with Westminster-style Parliaments, are subject to three-year maximum terms.

For many decades, prime ministers used Royal Prerogative to call an election at a time of their choosing; and the collapse of an administration led promptly to a general election. There had long been calls to curtail the Prime Minister’s power to hold a general election at a time of his or her choosing for the purpose of seeking a partisan political advantage for himself and his party, although views are mixed on whether fixed-term Parliaments would be a welcome development. It is questionable whether a Prime Minister should be able to use his position in government to give him and his party an electoral advantage by choosing to hold the next general election to a schedule that best suits him.

Fixed terms might bring practical advantages to Government and Parliament, by giving both a greater degree of predictability and continuity. There could be greater certainty about planning for a government’s legislative program, including proper parliamentary scrutiny of that program. There would also be far less space for political and media speculation about the likely date of a general election, which had been a negative distraction in recent years.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) provided for fixed days for polls for parliamentary general elections. The polling day for elections will ordinarily be the first Thursday in May every five years. The first such polling day will be on 7 May 2015. The Prime Minister will be able to defer, by statutory instrument, the polling day for such parliamentary general elections to a day not more than two months later than the scheduled polling day. The Act also made provision to enable the holding of early parliamentary general elections.

Under the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act , Parliament’s fixed five-year term can only be truncated in two ways. First, if more than two thirds of the House of Commons vote to call an election – and that means 434 of the 650 MPs, not just two thirds of those in the chamber. The second is more complicated. An early parliamentary general election is also to take place if the House of Commons passes a motion “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” If a motion of no confidence is passed or there is a failed vote of confidence, there is a 14-day period in which to pass an act of confidence in a new government. If no such vote is passed, a new election must be held, probably a mere 17 working days later. The intention is to provide an opportunity for an alternative Government to be formed without an election. Dissolution does not follow immediately on the triggering event, but can be timed so that, for example, essential business can be completed or the date of the election can be set to fall on a Thursday.

A government can lose the confidence of the House in a number of ways: the Queen’s speech could be voted down, or a request for supply (Government spending), or a key piece of legislation. But, on one reading of the clause at least, only if the House resolved specifically that it had no confidence in the Government would there be the possibility of an early general election. This could play into the hands of an Opposition wanting to force a minority government to resign without wanting to face the possibility of an early general election: it could simply make the Government’s life impossible while avoiding tabling an explicit motion of no confidence. There would also be nothing to stop a government from subverting the purpose of the Bill by tabling and voting for a motion of no confidence in itself in order to trigger an early general election without the need for a super-majority.

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Page last modified: 24-04-2017 16:04:35 ZULU