Wales politics

David Cowling: A rosy future for surprise elections?

Newspaper announcing Theresa May calling election Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption The era of snap elections was supposed to be over

The term "snap election" is a bit misleading, writes former editor of BBC political research David Cowling.

And speed is not quite how many would describe the six weeks it takes to conduct a general election campaign.

But however we describe it, we are really talking about elections that are called unexpectedly.

Every other election in Wales is fixed-term; whether you are a councillor, MEP, police commissioner or assembly member, you know the date and year when you next face election.

Before the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act (and hasn't that worked well) there was no fixed future date for a general election.

The law simply stated that no parliament could last longer than five years, the choice of the precise election date was in the hands of the prime minister.

Image copyright AFP/GETTY
Image caption A law to prevent snap elections was brought in by the Cameron-Clegg coalition government

In recent decades, a pattern emerged of about four-year terms in Westminster, with governments trying to massage the economy so that the election coincided with a "feel-good" factor that enhanced their prospects of re-election.

Governments that went the full five year term were almost always in trouble and hanging on in the hope that something would change the political weather in their favour.

An election might also be called if the government had so small a majority that they were unable to guarantee the passage of their legislation through parliament.

In 1964, Labour won the election with a majority of four seats.

In January 1966, a good by-election result in Hull encouraged them to call a general election for 31 March, at which they increased their majority to 98 seats.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Harold Wilson and his wife Mary celebrate Labour's election victory in October 1974

In late 1973, the impact of the miners' strike and associated industrial unrest provoked Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, to call an election to resolve the question "who governs Britain?" in February 1974.

The Conservatives won more votes but fewer seats than Labour and the latter formed a minority government.

Labour called a second election that year, in October, in order to seek a clear majority of their own.

In the event, they emerged with a majority of just three seats that was whittled away until Jim Callaghan, the Labour PM and a Cardiff MP, concluded the Lib-Lab Pact in order to guarantee the passage of their legislation through the Commons.

Image caption Jim Callaghan agreed a deal in parliament with the Liberal Party in 1977

Finally, we come to the general election that the law said should be held in 2020 but is being held in 2017.

It is certainly a snap election in the sense that it caught everyone by surprise.

It was called at a time when the government party was 20% ahead in the opinion polls, which is a bit of a clue as to why it is happening.

The era of "snap" elections was supposed to be over, however, if the Conservatives win on 8 June they are pledged to abolish the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

If so, we return to political choice rather than legal certainty when it comes to the timing of future general elections.

The future for snap elections looks rosy.

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