31 May 2015

The long Scottish Parliament, and the short

Speaking of seemingly technical but politically pregnant choices, we need to talk about the Fixed Term Parliament Act. The 2011 legislation has fallen out of the headlines after the election of the Cameron majority, but its echo will continue to be felt in Scottish politics for years to come. Why? It all comes down to an ... er ... timetable. Bear with me. The Act fixed Westminster's parliamentary terms at five years, in contrast with the four afforded to Holyrood under the Scotland Act, with UK general elections scheduled for 2015, 2020, 2025 -- and so on. 

All things being equal, all unforeseen catastrophes being avoided, Holyrood's electoral cycle ought to spin through 2011, 2015, 2019, 2024. But in order to avoid an unseemly clash this May, the Fixed Term Parliament Act extended Nicola Sturgeon's spell in office for an extra year, re-scheduling the next Holyrood election for 2016. But as the observant amongst you will have noticed, this is a clash deferred, not a clash resolved in the longer term. If we toddle on on the current electoral timetable, 2020 will bring with it yet another collision between the Holyrood and UK general elections. Not to mention European and local government polls. It is all a bit of a mess.

In the longer run, MSPs may decide to use the powers of the new Scotland Bill to extend the ordinary spell of a Scottish Parliament to five years, matching London and pulling us permanently out of sync. But in the short term, with another Holyrood election pending, what to do? There are only two real options here. The next Scottish Parliament, to be elected in 2016, could serve for either a three or another five year term. Under the three year plan, this would schedule future Holyrood elections for 2016, 2019, 2023 and 2027. Under the five year plan, 2016, 2021, 2025 and 2029.  Remember, UK general elections are now on a five year cycle: 2015, 2020, 2025, 2030.

The implications of the choice between these alternatives are not immediately obvious, but they are politically important and the option chosen will tell us a good deal about Nicola Sturgeon's approach to leadership.  As this decision will have to be taken before the Scottish Parliament is dissolved neat year, the SNP majority's view will be decisive. But nor are the balance of interest and calculations obvious for Scotland's main opposition leaders.

So which alternative to go for? Decimated in the general election, hollowed out in human and financial resources, with internal rows brewing, lurching on under Jim Murphy's zombie leadership, and anticipating a leadership battle, Scottish Labour is not looking fighting fit -- to put it mildly.  There is little time for introspection, but introspection appears unavoidable and necessary. And another half decade of "renewal and reform" may come to seem more attractive than the gruesome prospect of taking the fight to the SNP in 2016, with only three more years to get seriously back in contention for 2019. 

Of course, Kezia Dugdale or Ken Macintosh may well lead their troops down in defeat in 2021 too. But I imagine that either of these candidates would feel more confident of their chances after five years rather than three. Sorting out their internal difficulties, making good candidate picks, hoping to run the long-serving SNP administration to rags on its record.  

In the Times recently, Kenny Farquharson suggested that Dugdale needs five years' grace if she takes up the party reins. With respect to Kenny, he may have got his timings wrong. If 2016 produces a three year parliament, Dugdale may require at least seven years grace before she fronts a winnable election campaign. If, that is, Strugeon throws caution to the wind, endorses the three year plan and puts her main opponents in an awkward spot.

Moreover, the choice will give Scottish Parliament campaigns distinctive political backdrops for at least a decade. With the three year plan, Holyrood elections for the foreseeable future would take place against the tail - or fag - end of Westminster governments. Embattled, uncertain, out of ideas, exhausted. There are political opportunities there. By contrast, the five year plan would always set Scottish Parliament against the backdrop of developments in London. And that too is a gamble and projection with chances and risks for Labour and the SNP.  Another Tory government returned? A resurgent Labour Prime Minister elected? 

For a more cautious SNP leader, there are more obvious advantages in the five year plan. An extra year in office more or less guaranteed, barring disaster and disgrace, it would line up the next Holyrood battle for 2021, in the wake of another general election which -- at least at the moment -- Labour look unlikely to win. And that before the Tory majority rejigs the constituency boundaries in their favour. As we have seen, Tory wins can be leveraged north of the border.

And then there is the inevitable referendum dynamic. Whether we consider the three or the five year plan, barring an unforseeable "material change in circumstances", an independence referendum should not be in the party's manifesto for the next Holyrood election.  A three year suspension in these ambitions may be more palatable to those parts of the party who believe we should go full steam ahead for a second referendum as soon as possible. Those five years may feel long.

But realistically, I'm not convinced that we should even consider a second poll before the second half of the parliament which will be re-elected in 2019 or 2021. And that very much depending on the state of public opinion. If Sturgeon did decide to restore an indyref policy to the SNP manifesto in these circumstances, a decent period of time would have passed.  If you felt confident about Scottish opinion on the constitutional question turning speedily in a more positive direction, the three year plan has its charms. It burns through the years quickly. Two elections are likely to make it feel and seem as if significant time has passed since 2014.

On the other hand, going for five years means the calculating Nat retains flexibility to factor UK election results into account more actively. After 2020, Scots may have just seen a second Labour leader in as many years going down in defeat to an increasingly cynical, unionist-lite UK Tory party. Going for a three year Holyrood parliament, and another 2019 election, means that the SNP would be making big manifesto choices blind about the overall balance in UK politics. Wary Nationalist data gannets may blanch at that prospect.

It is a finely balanced judgement, and not merely a technical question of parliamentary timetabling. But one thing is clear. MSPs' choice between the long Scottish Parliament and the short will paint the political scenery against which Scottish elections and referendums are triggered, understood, analysed and fought -- perhaps for the next decade or more.


  1. I fully expect a conditional referendum pledge in the manifesto for 2016 with the Brexit referendum anything less would be irresponsible. Worded properly it would also cover not calling one in the aftermath of a non Brexit if conditions are not congenial for a win. Though with an unfettered Tory govt at Westminster I cannot imagine that. Death of the Union by a thousand cuts is as probable as Death by Split Brexit votes.

  2. Am I right in thinking that frequency of elections is not covered by the 2/3 majority rule (I mean a permanent change, not a one of)? If so that seems a strange omission.

  3. Also I grew up in New Zealand which has had 3 year parliamentary terms for a long time. Such a system is indeed good for public engagement it is bad in terms of encouraging short termism unless the electoral weather is set fair as it was the for the Helen Clark led minority Labour led coalitions that had three parliaments in which to work.

    I'm in two minds, five years would enable say a post independence parliament ample time to get stuff done, however public opinion will tend to be volatile in that period and so three years might be better to allow for that.

    Your point about the terms of both parliaments having to be odd prime numbers is a good one though for ruling out clashes. Even when independent it might well be good not to run contemporaneous election campaigns considering our media are likely to bleed over for some time.


  4. I'm all for the frequent option given the level of political engagement the electorate now has, and I hope they will enjoy throwing rascals out as much as throwing them in

  5. As and American we regularly have elections for local, state and federal offices on the same ballot as well as referendums and ballot initiatives. Why not have Scottish and UK parliament elections on the same ballot at the same election?

  6. Would it not be possible to have one 3-year term this time, to make up for the 5-year term just past, then resume four-year terms after that?

    3 or 4 years, it's still going to clash with WM eventually, but 4-year terms will make that clash every 20 years, instead of every 15 years.

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