Why hold general elections (UK Parliament)?

I recently read an article that discussed Gordon Brown’s decision to not call an election during the early months of his premiership, when he was most popular with the electorate. Can anyone explain to this ignorant American why the leader of the governing party would want to hold elections when his party already holds the largest number of seats in Parliament?

I’m not sure of precise US rules, but in Australia there are two houses - just like the US - and legislation has to pass both houses. If the Australian Senate rejects legislation, and in particular supply bills, the Government can call a double-dissolution election where the Senate and House of Representatives are elected at the same time country wide.

For a wide variety of reasons this is not a common or desirable option so the Senate tends to mostly follow the Government/House of Representatives line.

Both the UK and Australia can also call an election on an issue of extreme importance so as to establish a mandate.

Gordon Brown took over with less than three years before the latest possible date for the next election, so he was considering going to the polls to get a full five year term for himself.

This. In the UK system (until recently) five years was the maximum that could elapse between general elections, but the Prime Minister could choose to hold a general election at any time. This gave an incumbent Prime Minister some leeway in timing an election - leeway limited by the fact that neither the voters generally nor backbench members of Parliament like elections. So there was a trade-off between (a) calling an election at a time when you were popular, and (b) not calling an election seen to be unecessary.

When Brown was elected leader of the Labour Party (and therefore Prime Minister) there were still three years to go before an election was constitutionally necessary. Normally any PM calling an election three years early would be heavily criticised, and would risk incurring the voters’ displeasure. But in the circumstances Brown might have said that he wanted a popular mandate; he wanted to give the a chance to confirm the Labour Party in office under a leader who hadn’t been in office when they last got to vote.

Isn’t it technically the Queen that calls for the election?

Formally, yes, but the decision to call the election is made by the PM, who advises the queen to dissolve Parliament and call the election. This has changed somewhat under the new fixed date election rules.

Technically this was true until the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011 but in exercising this aspect of the Royal Prerogative she would always act on the advice of her Prime Minister.

If it was a coalition government, getting more seats for your party would allow you to eliminate smaller parties from the government, eliminating compromises you needed to make to form the coalition. I don’t know what the case was in this election but did Brown have a majority government?

He had a majority. The reason for calling an election would have been to get his own popular mandate.

My thought was that if pre-fixed terms a PM were trying to game the system like the calling for an election immediately after the opposition leader were caught raping Scottish sheep, then it may be appropriate for the Queen to step in and say, “Yeah, no. It’s my job to dissolve parliament and we’re not going to do that right now. Ask me in a year.”

I’ve always wondered: under the old system, what was to happen if the five-year deadline approached (or passed) and the PM did nothing to call an election? Was there some administrative mechanism in place for elections to be called automatically as of the five-year date?

The Queen does have some reserve powers, ie some limited discretion to refuse advice from the PM. However, the occasions where she would use them are vanishingly small. And, in the example you give, what is the objection, in a fundamental constitutional level, to the PM advising an election? If the Leader of the Opposition has been caught in some sort of criminal malfeasance, shouldn’t the people be given an opportunity to show whether they think that malfeasance demonstrates that the Leader of the Opposition should definitely not be eligible for 10 Downing?

In my example, I would think it appropriate to dissolve parliament once the new opposition leadership sorts itself out. Remember the Scottish-sheep rapist is still leader of the party until he is not. And who takes over as party leader? The opposition couldn’t possibly organize an election during the turmoil. Might take 3 days or might take 6 months for the opposition to sort everything out.

Two comments in reply:

  1. The Queen would only refuse the PM’s advice in the most exceptional circumstances, where there is serious concern that the PM’s actions are threatening the constitutional structure. Calling an election to take advantage of political disarray in the Opposition does not rise to that level. Sure, it may be unfair and politically opportunistic, but those aren’t the sort of things HM is supposed to make decisions about. If the voters of the UK think that the PM is being opportunistic and unfair, they will vote accordingly.

  2. I think you’re underestimating the rapidity with which parliamentary parties can move, especially if their own political fortunes are in jeopardy. For example:

• on 13 November 1990, Margaret Thatcher was PM.

• on 14 November, Michael Heseltine announced he was challenging Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

• on 20 November, the Conservative caucus held its first ballot. Thatcher won a majority, but not by the margin necessary to avert a second ballot.

• on 22 November, Thatcher announced she would not contest the next round.

• on 27 November, John Major win the second round, but not by a majority; Heseltine and Hurd announced they would not push for a third ballot

• on November 29, John Major was sworn in as PM.

In summary, 15 days to depose the Prime Minister and elect a new party leader, who became PM automatically.

And that’s a PM who still had considerable support in her own party caucus and base. I would think a party could move even more quickly once allegations arise of Scottish sheep raping and an election in the offing.

The leader of the party with the most seats becomes PM generally - but a government needs support of 50%+ of the members of parliament, which brings up the whole discussion of minority governments (see Israel)

When a PM chooses to step down for any reason, the party will elect a replacement who automatically becomes PM (unless, again, minority - then negotiations and funny thing may happen).

The new leader may have better (or different) ideas and want both the 5 years and the popular support to implement his plans. Plus, in Canada (and I assume, Britain, Australia and NZ) the selection process usually generates a lot of generally positive and euphoric publicity from the leadership race and the resultant bump in the polls may help in an election. The leader may want some special extra people to join his team - in parliamentary democracy, ministers should be members of parliament, so they would have to run in an election.

This also has to balance against the risks - number one, in an election anything can happen. Anything. Plenty of people have gone into elections with a significant lead, only to find the result did not match the plan… not everyone can drag out the Arab boogeyman to boost their polls last minute. Number two, a lot of long-ish governments tend to wear out their popularity - putting a fresh coat of paint on the old outhouse does not give you a new mansion… Even with a new leader they may not have the numbers to win.

The biggest advantage in a parliamentary democracy is that an election cycle can be nice and short. Change leaders, the opposition has to rejigger much of their message to counter the new leader with a new platform. Plus, these elections are short - none of this announcing like Cruz with 20 months to go, or like Hillary “not announcing” with 4 years to go. IIRC the time from calling an election to the voting can be as little as 35 days. Sure, like every politician, there’s a certain level of perpetual electioneering, but the Canadian cycle of real election ads is thankfully short. (Although we do get plenty of ads from government departments telling us what a great job the government is doing for us. With our money. And, the parties do try to run ads outside elections, but these get expensive and can backfire.)

And… the longer the party waits to call an election, the closer to the deadline, the more limited the options. however, call an election too soon after the last election, and be called for wasting money and time; if the election is called early because a minority cannot find a partner, all the politicians who could not compromise may be blamed.

Like Britain, Canada and the provinces have been passing “mandatory election timing” to remove the guesswork. Another point - when Trudeau the first was running down the clock and looking at defeat, some wag pointed out that technically the law was that parliament could only sit for 5 years, but the election could be delayed much longer - since absent a parliament, the government could run on orders-in-council…

Technically the Queen could refuse to do whatever the PM asks. However, this is the nuclear option - she better be damned right and highly supported in this action, or it’s the last time she’ll do it. The only time I ever heard of our governor general contemplating that option (in this case, refusing to sign a bill, like a presidential veto), was when Trudeau the first (him again!) tried to ram a constitution through unilaterally - but the GG was the least of the critics for this process, and eventually he achieved a compromise (something rare in his nature) and the threat disappeared.

There’s a very important principle in parliamentary democracy that the one parliament cannot bind the hands of future parliaments - so any law that is passed by parliament can be superseded by future parliaments (barring unconstitutionality). So a law stating “this is when an election happens” can be be overruled by the sovereign calling an election. Plus, of course, in the event of a minority failing a confidence vote, an early election may also be constitutionally mandatory. (Technically the queen/governor general can ask the next largest party with enough support to form the government, but again - refusing to call an election when asked is a nuclear option…)

I know what would happen in Canada and it may be the same in the UK, since Canada’s rules were based on the British. At the end of five years, Parliament would be dissolved. In principle, the government and cabinet could continue for up to a year. But there could be no budget and, in any case, they would be out at the end of the year. At that point, the Governor General would have to call an election.

It has changed completely. The PM no longer has ANY ability to advise the Queen to dissolve Parliament. The new Fixed Term Parliaments Act allows only two possibilities for a dissolution- a vote of no confidence not rescinded after two weeks or a 2/3 majority vote in the House of Commons.

Other than those two cases, the only dissolution that can occur is at the end of five years.

This means that no leader of a minority or small majority government (Coalition or not) does not have the automatic ability to advise a dissolution any longer.

This will be most important after the May election where any minority or small majority government will be vulnerable to replacement by an alternative government rather than be able to call a general election with the hopes of forming a majority government.

For instance if a Conservative minority government was formed because the alternative parties could not agree a programme of government, and passed a Queens speech in June, but lost supply at a following budget, the opposition parties could then hobble the government, forcing the Queen to call on an alternative politician to become Prime Minister who could gain the confidence of the House and bring a new budget to the House, taking over as a new Government with no intervening election.

The Act was designed not for stability but to stop either coalition member cutting and running. It may be regretted in a few months.

No longer the case in the UK because of the above act.

The next time a single party has a majority the Fixed Term Parliament Act is outta here.

But that day may be a long way away. It is also dependent on the Lords agreeing to it being changed.

I suspect it will be around for sometime.