Thursday, May 13, 2010

Confidence vs dissolution

One of the problems with the Westminster system is the ability of the Prime Minister to call an election whenever they want. In the past - in 1951 in New Zealand, and every four years in the UK - this has been abused to go early when the polls are in the government's favour. In New Zealand, we now have a strong presumption that this is not permitted - governments calling an early election tend to be punished. But in the UK, it is the norm; their parliamentary term is technically five years, but elections tend to happen after four.

The solution to this abuse is to remove the prerogative power of the Prime Minister to call an election, and instead fix the term of Parliament. Over in the UK, the LibDems have secured an agreement to do this as part of their coalition agreement. But the rider to this is causing some discussion:

Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed-term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.
Incredibly, this is being widely reported as raising the threshold for a vote of no confidence. That would of course be dangerous and undemocratic, a denial of the fundamental rule of the Westminster system that the Prime Minister must hold the confidence of the House (as opposed to the confidence of only 45% of the House). But the agreement doesn't actually suggest that. Instead, as with the reporting around this whole election, it shows that the UK is still trapped in the mire of pluralitarian, FPP-thinking.

The important point, which people are failing to distinguish, is that unseating a Prime Minister is not the same thing as dissolving Parliament and calling an election. The UK has traditionally conflated these, in that Prime Ministers defeated in a confidence vote have resigned and called an election. But it doesn't have to be that way. If, for example, there is someone else who commands the confidence of the House, then they could be appointed Prime Minister. UK political tradition is explicitly designed to thwart this - the defeated PM gets to rob their opponents of their victory by forcing an early election as a final act of spite.

The Tory-LibDem coalition's proposal fixes this. Now, if a Prime Minister is defeated, Parliament will have to work to find another one. Only if they explicitly vote with a supermajority do they get an early election. But the problem isn't that 55% is too high a threshold for calling an early election - rather its that, against the backdrop of an unfair electoral system which regularly hands parties more than 60% of the seats on only 40% of the vote, it's not high enough. This "fixed term parliament" arrangement will work fine in a hung Parliament - but will be utterly useless under UK politics as usual.