Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fixed Election Dates

Much has been made - including by your humble author - of Gordon Brown's failure to call a General Election just after he won the (uncontested) Labour leadership contest. Yet, for Brown haters everywhere, that probably would have been counter-productive. In that Brown probably would have won that General Election. So, rather than looking at the humiliating defeat of that bastard in about a year's time, we'd probably be looking at another three or so years of the grey ghoul in Number 10. Sure, with longer in power to let a new PM consolidate, the Labour party might be more eager to replace Brown had they won an election just after he became Prime Minister, but it would still mean another three years of Labour rule. 

Normally, the very fact that the PM can choose when to fight a General Election is of massive benefit to the incumbent Prime Minister. A savvy political operator (like Wilson in '66 or Thatcher in '83) can time the election to maximise their chances of winning a landslide. Likewise, bad times for elections can also be avoided - yeah, I know that the spin machine came up with a credible excuse for the delay, but Blair would have been mindlessly stupid to have a General Election in the middle of the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. 

Likewise, the alternative - for example, in the US, where Presidents know when they have to fight for re-election as the date is set by law - can create losers who, had they been able to choose the date for an election, probably would have won. The classic is the first President Bush. Had he had the capability, he would have been mad not to fight for re-election just after the end of hostilities in Iraq when his approval rating was through the roof. However, he was forced to fight in 1992, when the economy was down the toilet and any incumbent politician that year was going to be about as popular as the clap.

There are other advantages to having a fixed date for elections too. Party machines and electoral funding are far easier to organise, and there is no chance for the ruling party to call a surprise election in the hope of catching the opposition off guard and in a state of poor preparedness. The voters know when they will be able to go to the polls as well, and far less of the political debate is about the demands of the opposition for the ruling party to call an election. 

Yet I'm still not sure that there is a case for changing the way Britain's political system works and creating fixed dates for elections. It is only an advantage to the ruling party if they use it as an advantage - witness Brown dropping the ball when he first came to power just as Callaghan did before the Winter of Discontent. Besides, our electoral system is far from perfect for a variety of different reasons, and fixed term elections are not a cure-all for those problems. In fact, any such change could be seen as change for change's sake, which is about a meaningful as a Gordon Brown Promise. 

At the end of the day, there are far more pressing problems facing the UK today than the timings of elections. As with all constitutional reform, it tends to become the last refuge of the desperate politician trying to avoid the real issues that are drowning them.

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At 12:03 pm , Blogger James Higham said...

I'm with you most of the way here but also deeply cynical. They'll make some 'infant voucher scheme' or whatever available pre-election, people who've actually been placed in jobs beyond their level of competence will nod and say, 'Well yes, a vote for Labour makes sense,' and they'll do it all over again.


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