Fixing the Date of General Elections
Until 2011 UK law allowed the Prime Minster to call a general election under a flexible or so-called ‘floating’ date system within a five-year time frame. In practice this meant that the country’s most powerful man could call a general election when it was most convenient for him and his party. Historically many British leaders, including Clement Attlee, Sir Anthony Eden, and Harold Wilson, held spontaneous or ‘snap’ elections in this way, giving minimal notice to opposition parties and the public alike.
A key reform to the constitution has now removed this political advantage, essentially ‘levelling the playing field’ between the different political parties. With the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, a Prime Minister's discretion has been removed and a fixed five-year interval between general elections established. The only legal circumstances in which an earlier election could take place are laid down in the act – being a two-thirds vote in favour in the House of Commons, or a no-confidence vote in the House causing the Government to resign, followed by a failure to express confidence in an alternative person to become Prime Minister.
As such, the country next goes to the polls in May 2015, exactly five years after the last election that brought us the present Coalition. On average general elections have taken place every four years over the past 100 years and because this new reform effectively extends the duration of a Parliament by a year, it is useful to the coalition partners as it gives them a greater period of time to fix the economy before facing the electorate and also serves to bind the coalition parties together.
Robert Blackburn, Professor of Constitutional Law at The Dickson Poon School of Law, has done more than any other academic to promote this change. His 1995 book The Electoral System in Great Britain is one of the country’s leading academic studies on voting and election law and in 1998, 2010 and 2011 he gave expert evidence to three parliamentary select committees on the subject. He was able to advise MPs about framing the reform and its implications and was cited in House of Commons Library briefings and parliamentary debates on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill during its passage.
‘A general election is by far the main political event in the UK, as it concentrates into one process both the composition of our national legislature in the House of Commons and who will form the government as Prime Minister,’ Professor Blackburn explains.‘ This is unlike many other countries with separation of powers such as the USA, where different electoral processes apply. As such, the question of election timing is of very great democratic importance.’
Professor Blackburn’s career history makes him especially well qualified to engage in research and advice on constitutional affairs. A graduate from London School of Economics and Leeds University, he has degrees in law, political science and history, including two doctorates. One of the faculty’s most distinguished academics, he has previously worked as a professional City lawyer, legal consultant to the Council of Europe and adviser to government and parliamentary bodies in the UK and abroad.
At King's he has performed many different roles across the College, including Acting Head of the Law School, Head of the Institute of Contemporary British History and member of numerous external partnership boards such as the new King's/Ipsos-MORI collaboration on social research and opinion polling. He has also managed the College's partnership in the University of London International Law programs, offering students around the world the opportunity to study for a London law degree. Alongside his academic research he is the author of three titles for Halsbury's Laws of England – on Parliament, the Crown and Royal Family, and Constitutional and Administrative Law – the multi-volume series regarded by the legal profession as the most authoritative statement of English law.
Looking to the future, Professor Blackburn is now working on an even more important constitutional development, supplying the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee with a series of research studies to support its inquiry into a written constitution for the UK. Three reports have already been submitted, the latest on issues of preparation, design and implementation and in 2014 he is set to supply the committee with four illustrative blueprints as to what a document of this nature might look like.
‘The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is just the latest reform in a continuing ad hoc process of codifying disparate parts of the constitution,’ he says. ‘There is an on-going momentum towards codification in all parts of our public life today, but with respect to our political system there is a case that this should be performed in a coherent and joined-up way in a single document – a written constitution.’
This might also make completion of some seemingly intractable issues, such as House of Lords reform or a new Bill of Rights, easier to resolve. ‘My mission is to inform through academic research and facilitate the resolution of practical problems,’ he concludes. ‘My background in the three disciplines of law, politics and history has proved very useful to me in this work, because in constitutional matters it is particularly important to interrelate the past, present and future when analysing proposals for change and their implications.’ Image credit: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament