26 Sep 2011

Five-year parliament changes dynamics of opposition

Ed Miliband has one big advantage. He’s the first leader of the opposition in history who knows, pretty much for certain, when the next election will be – in May 2015. The new legislation setting down that all parliaments will last five years in future makes it much easier for an opposition to plan. Only in the most unusual circumstances will an election be called before then.

In the past opposition leaders had to work on the assumption that a prime minister would call an election after four years, not five, but they also had to prepare for the possibility that a prime minister might cut and run, and call a snap election before the four-year mark (as Ted Heath did in 1974), and Gordon Brown almost did in 2007.

But Ed Miliband can take his time. He doesn’t need to have policy ready until about 2013, or to rush to get the right people in place – either in his shadow cabinet or around him in his office.

Indeed, we know there will be three more Labour conferences before the next election, which is why this week’s gathering has a slight air of irrelevance.

My former colleague, the pollster Peter Kellner, says Labour should cancel its conference for the next two years, and that holding it this week is like filming an episode of Downton Abbey without the costumes made or actors booked.

Get the latest from the Channel 4 News live blog on the Labour conference

But there are downsides to this long, five-year preparation period too. First, there’s a danger of drift, laziness and complacency, in the knowledge that the party doesn’t need to do much because it has got so much time.

The other danger for Ed Miliband is personal. His party also knows it can try him out for two three years, and then replace him if necessary, with still plenty of time for another leader to get his feet under the table. Not that I think that is at all likely right now, but it’s a possibility. In the past opposition parties were reluctant to change leaders in the middle of a parliament for fear the prime minister might take advantage and call a snap election.

So we live in different circumstances. What precise effect fixed, five-year parliaments have on politics is still far from clear though.

Follow Michael Crick on Twitter: @MichaelLCrick