Austin Mitchell: The slow death of a fixed-term Parliament

IT seems to me that we should have much shorter Parliaments. It is possible to have fixed terms, but there has to be a right or an ability to end a Parliament in circumstances such as war, economic crisis or disaster. We can therefore have a term that is fixed, but the period should be shorter.

The best evidence against five-year Parliaments – frankly, five years is too long – is the long, slow death rattle of this Parliament. If MPs want to see a monument to the failure of five-year Parliaments, they should look at what is happening now. In effect, this Parliament and this Government did all they were going to do in their first three years.

Most of that was wrong of course, but it was done during those first three years. Frankly, we are now just hanging on in this House with nothing particular to do. It reminds me of the old Bing Crosby song:

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“We’re busy doing nothing,

Working the whole day through,

Trying to find lots of things not to do”.

At this moment in this Parliament, the Government has got to the end of its tether. There has never been a better moment to use Oliver Cromwell’s words – they apply to all of us – when he dismissed the Long Parliament: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

But this agony now has to be prolonged, with the farce of pretending to do things when we are just electioneering and throwing trivia at each other, until the end of March, before there is a renewal in the election in May. This Parliament is conclusive proof that five years is too long.

The usual claim for a five-year Parliament is that that gives the government time to implement their policies, but this Parliament has given this Government time to change every policy that they started out with. We started out with “Hug a hoodie”, but that turned out to be cutting benefits for young people. We started out with “Hug a Husky” and “Save the environment”, but that ended up as “green crap”. We started out with “Support the European Union”, but we now use every possible occasion to provoke dissent and argument within the European Union. We started out with “Immigrants welcome”, but it is now, “Keep everybody out”. We started out with “We’re all in it together”, but that has ended up with putting the penalties and pains on the poor, while rewarding the rich.

Even continuity of economic policy, which is claimed to be the most sacrosanct element during this Parliament, has not been provided by a five-year term. The only continuity of economic policy to which this Government can lay claim —apart from cuts to everything, or slash and burn, which is the Government’s only long-term economic plan — has been produced not by them, but by the Bank of England.

Frankly, the independent Bank of England has saved the Government. We now have a recovery, but if interest rates are kept flat to the floor, as they have been for the six years since the crisis, and if money is printed at a record rate – through quantitative easing, we have printed £375bn — there is bound, at some stage, to be a recovery.

That is not the Government’s long-term economic plan. Their plan was to cut and slash and burn everything and to roll back the state. The Bank of England’s management of the economy has produced the only successful long-term economic policy. Therefore, the argument for long-term economic policies also fails.

I am in favour of a three-year term. At a pinch, I would accept a four-year term. It should be a fixed term, with the ability to call an early election in extreme or difficult circumstances.

I am being moderate by calling for short, triennial Parliaments. I am old enough to have been a Chartist, I suppose, but I am not espousing annual Parliaments, as the Chartists did. A three-year Parliament accords with the mood of the public, as we read it in the major polls and surveys. There is an alienated mood. People want to be heard. They are angry and upset. They want to have an influence, but they feel that MPs are not listening and that Parliament does not represent them. They want to be heard.

The only effective way of ensuring that they are heard, that I know of, is to have more frequent elections. That is why I am in favour of a three-year term. We are too remote from the people if we have long, five-year terms.

Austin Mitchell is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby who spoke in a Commons debate on fixed-term parliaments. This is an edited version.