There has been quite a bit of outrage over the ConDem coalition's plans to set a vote threshold of 55% before parliament can be dissolved. Not least on this page of the BBC website.

As I noted in the comments to my post on Wednesday the point of fixed-term parliaments is not to prevent an intermediate election in the event that a government can't be formed or becomes unsustainable, it is to stop a Prime Minister with a working majority gaining an unfair advantage from doing it at other times.


The way fixed term parliaments work in Wales and Scotland is that if an intermediate election is called, the new parliament lasts only for the remainder of the original term, not for a new full term. This prevents the governing party or coalition taking advantage of a short term surge in popularity (or an impending drop in popularity) to get themselves an extra few years in power.

Now it is true that there is a threshold of 67% for both the Senedd and Scottish Parliament, and that would appear to have established a precedent that could be followed at Westminster. The Tories and LibDems will certainly throw that back at Labour as a precedent to justify their lower figure. However I think that any threshold higher than a simple majority is both unfair and counterproductive to the sort of consensual politics that the ConDem coalition say they want to follow. Under such a system a government will "give it a go" on contentious votes—rather than making sure of its majority beforehand by making its proposal less contentious—knowing that it would always have a second, or third, chance.

So in my opinion, stipulating that a new parliament formed after an intermediate election will only run for the remainder of the original term is a sufficient safeguard in itself to prevent abuse, and therefore does not require any higher threshold than a normal majority to trigger it.


But the problem is actually much more deep seated than it might at first appear. The reason that fixed-terms can work for Wales and Scotland is that they are "junior" to parliament at Westminster, so Westminster can in effect impose its will on them. But the principle on which Westminster operates is that it is sovereign and therefore it can do whatever it wants. If it agrees to do something now, there is nothing to stop a future parliament changing its mind and either reverting to the old system or adopting another different one.

In other sovereign states, this problem is solved by the simple mechanism of writing those rules into its constitution, and making sure that the constitution can only be changed in exceptional circumstances after a super-majority vote, or a referendum, or some other similarly high threshold.

But this seems to have been lost in the current discussions, and as a result the arguments are already becoming clouded. To my mind the main reason of principle behind those advocating a high threshold for the dissolution of parliament is to in some way mirror the super-majority that other states require before being able to change the constitution. But from another perspective it looks suspiciously like 55% is an arbitrary figure designed purely to reflect the current percentage of Tory MPs in the Commons, so as to ensure that a new election can't be called unless the Tories, with their 47% of seats (gained with only 36% of the vote, but that's a different outrage) agree to it.


In those terms, it is a stitch up. And as things stand it is even more of a stitch up because I haven't yet seen one quote or article (someone please correct me if I've missed one) which says that an intermediate election under the current ConDem proposal will elect a parliament which will only run for the remainder of the original term. There is no mechanism in the ConDem proposals to prevent the new parliament voting for a different set of rules.

That's not to say that there can never be a way of solving the conundrum. I'd suggest that the best mechanism to solve it in a way that causes least disruption to our present constitutional arrangements is to vest this power in the Crown, which already has the power to dissolve parliament after five years. But this cannot be changed without wide consultation and a broad consensus across the political spectrum. The way in which the ConDem coalition has presented their proposal—up to now, anyway—makes such consensus extremely unlikely.

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Cibwr said...

When he spoke about this union being a family what he meant was that Wales and Scotland are children and he is the benevolent father. Its deeply patronising. Also it does rather conveniently emphasise the subservient nature of the National Assembly in Cardiff.

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