The Constitution Unit


Seminar Report: Prof Robert Blackburn

18 October 2010


Report by Benjamin Mueller, Research Intern

In a talk that was as wide-ranging as it was pertinent to the ongoing discussions about the introduction of fixed term Parliaments, Professor Blackburn gave an insightful presentation on the relative merits and demerits of the Government's proposed legislation. The event, organised jointly by the Constitution Unit and the Study of Parliament Group, was held in a packed Thatcher Room in Portcullis House.

Professor Blackburn highlighted the legal, constitutional and political complexities surrounding the proposed fixed term Bill. Specifically, he asserted that a certain confusion of purpose seems to detract from the Bill's efficacy: whereas fixed term Parliaments ought to be introduced in order to reform the unsatisfactory state of the law on election timing, it appears that the actual purpose of the Bill is to ensure the survival of the Coalition over the full five years of the current Parliament. Professor Blackburn convincingly argued that a well-designed fixed term Bill should resolve a number of 'constitutional mischiefs', including preventing the monarchy from getting drawn into politics during times of electoral uncertainty (viz. King George V's attempts at brokering a national government in 1931), as well as correcting the power imbalance (skewed toward the incumbent government) resulting from the PM's discretion over setting the general election date.

The proposal to institute fixed term Parliaments has major implications for the UK's political and constitutional system, and hence must be thought through carefully. Professor Blackburn believes that the proposed Bill sets the threshold for calling a general election within the fixed term too high. The proposed Act mandates that in future a No Confidence resolution must be passed with a statutory special majority. Such a super-majority requirement for No Confidence votes is wholly unprecedented in Westminster. In addition, Professor Blackburn proposed that the fixed period of time between general elections ought to be set at four, not five years, reflecting the average duration of a Parliament over the past 100 years.

As the ensuing sharp and at times rather argumentative Q&A session illustrated, Professor Blackburn's talk provided all attendees with food for thought and many decidedly astute observations about the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed fixed term Parliaments Bill.

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