‘Why I believe this election harms democracy’

Opportunism: May’s party leads the polls by 13 points, according to the latest from YouGov.
by Jeff King

A professor of law at University College London’s Faculty of Laws and treasurer of the UK Constitutional Law Association. He was previously a fellow at Oxford University and a visiting fellow at Humboldt University in Berlin.

General elections are usually major democratic exercises. But not this time. Today the prime minister is trying to silence dissent — and the vote will end up harming the UK’s constitution.

Theresa May has deftly launched a gambit to get around the core purpose of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 – and succeeded. The purpose of that Act was to stop prime ministers from calling an election at a time that suited the government rather than the country.

Now the prime minister has gained two-thirds majority support for a motion authorising an election on June 8th 2017. In my view, the move is constitutionally problematic, and support for it by the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party is surprising.

In her public statement May said an election was needed in the interests of stability. She outlined several sources of instability: a Labour Party statement that it might refuse to support a withdrawal agreement with the European Union; that the Liberal Democrats want to “grind the business of Government to a standstill”; that the Scottish National Party will vote against the Great Repeal Bill; and that the unelected Lords “vowed to fight us every step of the way”.

What the prime minister refers to as 'instability' is in fact how a democracy is meant to function

All these reasons seem transparently weak. The Lords has made clear that it will not block Brexit. There is no need for another manifesto commitment to implement the result of the EU referendum. And the Commons can anyway override any obstruction. The Labour Party – the only credible threat in the Commons – has already committed firmly to Brexit, and is bound to keep that commitment because its political survival in the heartlands depends on it.

So why call the election? The simple reason is that it would do either or both of two things for the Conservative Party. First, it would increase its majority and make parliamentary approval of the withdrawal agreement a foregone conclusion. Second, and much more importantly, it would give the government an additional two years in power at a crucial point in Brexit negotiations. The new Parliament – and hence government – will remain in place until May 2022. There is no other political reason for calling an election now.

My view is that this is constitutionally suspect in three ways.

First, it seeks to evade the purpose of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which is to limit the power to call early elections for pure political gain. Second, if May increases the Conservative Party’s majority, it will undermine the power of Parliament to hold the government to account. Third, the prime minister’s statement treated the possibility of parliamentary control like an impediment to good governance, rather than a valued aspect of constitutional government.

The prime minister repeatedly emphasised the need for “strong leadership” in her statement. But the absence of strong leadership is hardly the main problem of the British constitution. What is needed is a stronger Parliament that shows some political pluralism, takes evidence, listens and reports on a broad range of related issues. Only then can the many problems Brexit will create both nationally and internationally get a proper inspection. What the prime minister refers to as “instability” is in fact how a parliamentary democracy is meant to function.

This is an edited extract from the UK Constitutional Law Association’s blog, printed with the kind permission of the author. To read the piece in full, follow the first link under Become An Expert.

You Decide

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Word Watch

Fixed Term Parliaments Act
This was a law passed in 2011, under the coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It said elections would be five years apart. That can only be changed if the House of Commons votes that it has no confidence in the government or votes for an early election by a majority of at least two-thirds.
Liberal Democrats
The pro-EU party had nine MPs in the House of Commons when the election was called.
Scottish National Party
This party, which supports Scottish independence, had 54 seats in the House of Commons when the election was called. The Conservatives had 330.
The Lords tried to make some amendments to the recent law which allowed the prime minister to begin taking the UK out of the EU. But it backed down when its changes were rejected by the House of Commons.
A programme for government which a party produces before an election. Under a tradition known as the Salisbury-Addison convention, the House of Lords is expected to allow a government to pass measures which it promised to introduce in its manifesto.

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