Short, long, or in-between: How long do parliaments last?

Thea Ridley-Castle, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 25th August 2023

Regular elections are a core part of any democracy, but how regular should they be? There has been a lot of variety on what the right length is, both around the world and in the history of the UK.

In the UK, the maximum term length of a Parliament is five years from the day on which the Parliament first met. This is within the upper end of the norm for term lengths in well-established parliamentary democracies worldwide.

Parliamentary term lengths in England and Britain

Whilst we are relatively used to 5-year terms nowadays, this was not always the case. Historically parliaments could last pretty much any length of time. The shortest parliament sat for one week in 1681 and was named the Oxford Parliament. Confusingly, a longer sitting parliament was given the name the Short Parliament, which sat for 3 weeks in 1640 from the 13th April-5th May. It was called after an 11-year absence of Parliamentary rule where King Charles I led by Personal Rule as an autocratic absolute monarch. This was followed swiftly by the longest parliament, which was called in September 1640, it became known as the Long Parliament which would not legally end until 1660, meaning the longest-sitting Parliament in UK history sat for 20 years.

These years spanned the English Civil War and saw the parliament forcibly purged, disbanded and eventually reconvened after the death of Cromwell.

There were various attempts at Triennial Acts across the mid-to-late 1600s. The 1641 Act, stated that parliaments could last any length of time, but the gap between them must not be more than 3 years; and contained an enforcement mechanism to ensure parliamentary renewal. In 1664 an amendment was made which removed the enforcement mechanism from the 1641 Act. Finally, the 1694 Act mandated that Parliament must meet annually and hold a general election every 3 years. The constant elections and campaigning resulted in the Septennial Act of 1716 which increased the maximum length of a Parliamentary term to 7 years and allowed for a general election to be called between the 3rd and 7th sitting year. Around 200 years later the Parliamentary Act 1911 reduced the maximum Parliamentary term length to 5 years.

More recently, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (2011) passed during the Lib Dem-Tory coalition years, mandated that elections be held every 5 years on the first Thursday in May. There was a caveat in place that a general election could be called if two-thirds of the House of Commons voted for an early general election or the government lost the confidence of the House.

During this time there were two notable general elections which were held earlier than the 5-year term:

  • 19 April 2017, MPs voted by 522 to 13 to allow an early general election on 8 June 2017.
  • 31 October 2019, Parliament passed legislation to allow for a parliamentary general election on 12 December 2019.

Until the time it was repealed in 2022, by the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, it was the only time that a sitting Prime Minister could not advise the monarch to use their royal prerogative to call a General Election.

The current Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act reinstated the rules of the Parliamentary Act 1911.

Around the world

The Chartists of the 1830s and 40s famously demanded annual elections to parliament. While no country followed their recommendation, there is a wide variety of term lengths. Here are just a few examples

Terms Length Country
2 Years American House of Representatives
3 Years Australian House of Representatives, New Zealand House of Commons
4 Years Canadian House of Commons, German Bundestag, Israeli Knesset,
5 Years French Chamber of Deputies, Indian Lok Sabha, Italian Chamber of Deputies
6 Years Liberian House of Representatives

Parliamentary term lengths are a balancing act between democratic legitimacy, and having enough time away from election campaigning to actually implement a manifesto.

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