Sunday 21 December 2008

Why we will get fixed election dates (one day)

Ben Brogan reports that Gordon Brown has ruled out an early 2009 poll, a non-story that still had the potential to cause political trouble, and which he has wisely closed down.

The same logic could take him further, to fixed term elections. The main argument for this is straightforward: fair play. Most people think it odd that one of the team captains should have the referee’s whistle. (There is a Fixed Term campaign backed by OurKingdom, Unlock Democracy and Iain Dale among others).

But most people think this won’t happen. Not out of principle but just a ‘Turkeys and Christmas’ argument. Why should any Prime Minister give up the power to set the date?

But I am not convinced.

An observation: the power to choose the election date has done post-war Prime Ministers more harm than good.

And a prediction: one of our next three Prime Ministers will come to think that it is in their interests to give up the power, and move to fixed election dates.

As the 2007 party conference began, I proposed that Brown should close down the election speculation, before it got out of hand, with another ‘Bank of England’ moment.

"Conference, I will tell you and the country the date of the next election - it will be in May 2009, and this will be the last time that the Prime Minister gets to choose.

I want the focus of the next 18 months to be on the changes that Britain needs to be better educated, stronger and fairer as a society. I don't mind the opposition knowing when the next election will be - it won't help them when they haven't got the ideas to win it."

I was sensible enough to write “don’t hold your breath” too. But the case for a Prime Minister making that move is much stronger than most people have realised. (Indeed, the report that Brown may also be effectively ruling out a June 2009 election now, he would have pretty much confirmed a Spring 2010 election, confirming that he thinks it is in his government’s interest for there to be certainty, not ceaseless speculation as the price of the power to spring a surprise).

My (back of the envelope) reckoner can identify two post-war examples where the choice of election date proved a powerful advantage: Harold Wilson in 1966, where calling another election increased his majority from 4 to almost 100; and Anthony Eden’s decision to call a snap poll on becoming premier in 1955. (However, Eden’s case, this was pretty natural timing; his problem was that Churchill had hung on and on before resigning. There was little reason at the time to think that a 1955 or 1956 poll would have been much different, nor would it have been assuming an election would have preceded the Suez misadventure).

There are two other (fairly marginal) cases of good timing. Alec Douglas-Home may have reduced the scale of Tory defeat by hanging on to the bitter end in 1964. It seems intuitively plausible to think that John Major’s decision to play it long was important in 1992. But what was most striking was that the Tories led Labour by over seven points: the decisive dynamic was that, when voters concentrated on the choice, they decided that Labour was not ready. That suggests Major could well have achieved a similar (perhaps even better) result had he gone in Spring or Autumn 1991 (though the narrower parliamentary arithmetic could be used to argue that getting the timing right mattered).

Meanwhile, I can identify five examples of the power to choose the date blowing up in the face of the premier. Three of these resulted in catastrophic (politically fatal) damage to which mistakes over timing made a decisive contribution - Attlee in 1950/51; Heath in 1974; Callaghan in 1979. In two further cases, tactical gambits over election timing came badly unstuck: Wilson’s defeat in 1970 and the (slightly different) case of Brown’s non-election in 2007.

I can’t see much reason to think election timing made any difference in the case of the pretty standard four year parliaments which ended in 1959 (Macmillan), 1983, 1987(Thatcher), 2001 and 2005 (Blair). I am sceptical it made much difference in 1964 (Douglas-Home) or 1992 (Major) either. Nor did the October 1974 second election resolve anything much other than that asking similar questions would generate similar answers, suggesting that timing was not decisive.

Proper historians (and improper ones too) are very welcome to take issue with some of the specific cases – but I am pretty confident that the “more harm than good” hypothesis will remain solid.

The Callaghan case – singing and all – is pretty well known, and the mistake with the most far-reaching consequences.

Heath’s February 1974 contest was very much an ‘election of choice’, not necessity. It was the most unusual in its timing and framing of any post-war election. It counts as among the most significant self-inflicted wounds for any PM. (Whether and how far Heath might have fared better in a more conventional, non-crisis election the following May is hard to judge).

Yet Saint Clem has a good claim to have made an even worse decision than either Heath or Callaghan, doing more to throw away power than anyone by making the wrong call about election timing. (Of course, Labour achieved an immense amount from 1945 to 1948, and was intellectually, politically and physically exhusted by 1950 to 1951).

The 1950 and 1951 elections took place in a different world to ours. It was a bad decision, but through excessive deference to the wishes of the King.

The Parliament had run for just twenty months. Given the strength of party discipline, there was no chance of losing significant legislation or a vote of confidence for the foreseeable future. (How Wilson, Callaghan and at times Major would have dreamt of a majority of five!). Nor was 1951, and an Autumn election, good timing for Labour: George VI was keen to have the issue resolved since he planned to be out of the country for a lengthy tour. (In fact, the tour was cancelled as the King's lung condition developed, and he died in February 1952, and the wish to resolve the political situation may have been related to this).

Clem’s Labour were dealt a raw deal by the electoral system in 1951 – winning a quarter of a million more votes than the Conservatives, who won an overall majority of 21 – but why was there any need to take for the battlefield for another three or four years? Whether Labour, given the chance to oversee the transition from austerity to prosperity, could have renewed itself instead of descending into factional civil war is another unknown, but it was a chance that was thrown away.

(But let us balance the scorecard by giving Attlee some credit for the odd case of 1945, where the opposition effectively determined the election timing. Labour rejected Churchill’s preference for extending the national coalition until after the defeat of Japan. However, three months difference would not have altered the landslide outcome).

Another (perhaps less decisive) mistake about timing: Harold Wilson’s surprise, summer election in 1970, the campaign in which he was accused by Whitelaw of going up and down the country “stirring up apathy”. England were defending the football World Cup during the campaign too, and that was not a coincidence. But Wilson’s tactical political gambit needed Sir Alf Ramsey to make better substitutions in Mexico where – with Gordon Banks ill, he took Bobby Charlton off to rest for the semi-final, only for England to throw away a two goal lead to crash out to Germany. The match was four days before the election. (There were some bad balance of trade figures too, but which affected the national mood more). There was a late swing to Heath, and Wilson was out. For want of a nail ... (The ‘What If?’ questions include how the battle for the soul of the Tory party between Heath and Powell would have developed after a Tory defeat). Perhaps Wilson rued not calling the election ahead of the quarter final instead or the semi-final. He probably missed the bigger lesson. Even the World Cup could not disguise the government’s lack of an argument as to why it merited re-election. The timing gambit failed, but tactics on timing couldn’t help because of a broader failure of political strategy.

An objection to my argument could be that the history just shows that prime ministers would get more out of the power to choose the date if they used it effectively - if Callaghan had gone in 1978, for example.

Up to a point. But this strengthens a counter-argument: that Prime Ministers inevitably have a natural tendency to over-estimate the awesome nature of this election date power (the ‘loneliest decision’ and all of that) and no doubt have a natural tendency too to believe that they will be one of those who bucks the history.

That may well be a self-defeating desire. Note too, with the exception of Attlee, the mistakes were made by those who thought most about election timing. Governments that were re-elected won on their underlying strength, not electoral tactics, and mostly on a pretty routine timetable.

There are two further arguments about why giving up the power now would make more sense than in the past.

Firstly, the changing nature of the media. There was some discussion of election timing in 1966 and 1978. But nothing like on the scale we have now. Governments often struggle to shift attention from process to substance. Making election date speculation a non-issue for good would defuse its destructive power to get in the way.

Secondly, do not underestimate the political credit to be gained by being seen to give the power. That is partly because many people will think it right and a good reform. (What are the chances of such a move, once made, ever being reversed?). But it looks like fair play too, and justly so, though partly because the election date power looks rather more awesome than it is,

That is an argument which Gordon Brown understands, having made the decision for Bank of England independence a decade ago. (And the substantive value of that was clear this month: if the Chancellor was setting interest rates, recent decisions may have been overshadowed by political arguments about whether they were politically motivated, with accusations of panic, whereas the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee can demonstrate the evidence base for its decisions).

Brown’s experience of election speculation in 2007, and trying to contain it now, may mean a reasonable view that this particular issue is now one to steer clear. (Still, why not the best of all worlds: at least set in train, as the PM seemed inclined to do last summer, the process which would codify our constitution, and make this issue one of those which can be debated and decided within that).
I could certainly imagine David Cameron making such a move too, partly because the now fiscally conservative Tory Mods will be thinking about other counter-intuitive moves to strike a liberal attitude.

But if neither current leader makes the leap, I do not think it will be too long before a premier or party leader wins plaudits for dispensing with this apparently awesome personal political power. Even if it is one from which so few Prime Ministers appeared to have derived any political benefit.

(A quick final word: I recognise there are other, substantive, objections to fixed term parliaments. I am unconvinced. The most substantive ones are about cases where there are (non-partisan) advantages to flexibility over the election date, but it is possible to design a system which enables that where there is sufficiently broad support. But that will have to be for another post).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good argument to make... but then I wonder why the government hasn't take any substantive steps on it then...? He could have at least floated it in the Governance of Britain paper?