Why the big fuss over fixed term parliaments?

About a month before the election Radio 4 broadcast a fascinating programme narrated by the BBC’s Scottish political editor Brian Taylor. Over half an hour he explained how the Scottish Parliament differs from its Westminster counterpart.

It’s fixed term. Every piece of legislation is a new act of coalition. While some parties will support each other to get one piece of legislation passed, they’ll not agree to cooperate over the next. The SNP dominate, but while they win some debates, they lose others.

But losing a vote doesn’t trigger a crisis of confidence and bring down the parliament. Even the budget can run into trouble. As The Scotsman explains:

“The Scottish Government’s historic first budget passed its initial parliamentary test last night – thanks to the co-operation of an unlikely alliance of Tories, Greens and Margo MacDonald.

In a knife-edge vote after a four-hour debate, the government won by 64 votes to 62, with the two Green MSPs abstaining.”

The fixed term nature means that each party picks themselves up and moves on. The only downside is that no one party can make its own brand of political philosophy dominate the legislative agenda.

None of that sounds bad … Update – The Liberal Conspiracy blog has ideas on this too.

The Con Dem new coalition government at Westminster is suggesting that a fixed term parliament will only be able to be dissolved early if 55% of MPs vote for it.

Why 55%?

A BBC News website piece, describes some of the background.

“50% of MPs plus one can currently trigger a no confidence vote in the government”

“Labour put through fixed-term laws in Scotland requiring 66% of MSPs to dissolve Parliament.”

However their graphic illustrates why the 55% figure would give the parliament much greater stability than a simple 50% majority.

Graphic showing how political parties could gang up to trigger a vote of no confidence in the government

“It would be impossible for opponents, even if fully united, to muster the 55% needed to dissolve Parliament, unless at least 16 Tories rebelled against their party leadership.”

Of course, bringing down the NI Assembly is much simpler, just requiring one party to refuse to nominate a first or deputy first minister …

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  • Brian Walker

    The different systems of the old Westminster and the new Holyrood have to be borne in mind, as does the political context of fixed terms in either. In Holyrood the combined opposition amounts to 63%, just under the two thirds threshold necessary to compel an election.,

    This threshold was set because coalitions were expected to be the norm under the AV + voting system.
    But a safety valve was also set. An election will be called a new government can’t be found within in effect, 28 days after losing a vote of confidence by simple majority .So far the opposition haven’t found it politically expedient to do that. None of the votes the SNP gov have lost amount to confidence votes.

    At Westminster the coalition gov would likely resign after losing a 50% vote of confidence but dissolution would not automatically follow even if the Lib Dems joined the opposition. Then we enter unknown territory. The 55% threshold would prevent parliament from compelling a dissolution but wouldn’t prevent Cameron asking for one and probably getting it. This would require at least the acquiesence of the other parties.

    The alternatives are (a) a Tory minority gov – but having lost one vote might not a Tory minority gov not lose another, producing “zombie government”i.e. one that could neither get its business through nor die? And ( b) a new combined coalition of the opposition which could be as implausible then it was last week.

    Dissolution and an emergency election at Cameron’s own initiative would seem the most likely outcome. Which raises the question – what is the point of the 55% in the first place? Only to provide cement between the two coalition parties. It changes the rules only minimally by abandoning the convention of an automatic dissolution after a vote of confidence for this parliament only.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    If the rules are changed by one or more parties specifically to suit those parties then I think it would be reasonable to describe that as cheating.

  • This coverage is starting to get on my wick some.

    No, all the other parties added together can’t dissolve parliament if there’s a minority Tory government.

    But they can still bring down the government with the same boring old confidence motion maths as before. One more No than Aye is enough to force any government’s resignation.

    The only change is that after doing so, MPs will be forced to try forming a new government from within the existing parliament. Just like Wales and Scotland do already, under Labour-enacted legislation.

  • Gendjinn

    Fixed term assemblies would inevitably lead to the situation in the US where electoral campaigning never ceases.

  • Comrade Stalin

    55% may well be enough for the ConLib administration to vote itself out of office, but that obviously assumes that none of those MPs, especially those living in marginal seats, would attempt to rebel in order to hold onto his/her seat for as long as possible.

    Fixed term assemblies would inevitably lead to the situation in the US where electoral campaigning never ceases.

    Fixed term assemblies are utterly irrelevant to the reason for constant electoral campaigning in the US. The problem there is that you’re constantly electing people to things. State governments, governors, the upper and lower House, President .. and that’s before you get into propositions, election of judges and district attorneys etc.