Sunday, 22 March 2015

Purdah in British Politics

Wyn Grant from the University of Warwick discusses the role of purdah and the general election.

When I had a short period of secondment in the civil service, there happened to be some European Parliamentary elections that were imminent and I was surprised by the restrictiveness of the ‘purdah’ rules that were applied.   They have been in existence in one form or another since the beginning of the 20th century and are intended to prevent any statements or actions giving an advantage to candidates in the election campaign.   They also apply in local government elections.  Serious breaches can lead to prosecution for misconduct in public office.

The rules are intended to ensure a level playing field between the political parties.   However, the governing party necessarily has some advantages because the prime minister remains in office and becomes a focus of attention in the event of a national emergency such as a terrorist attack.    In such circumstances, he or she can be seen to act authoritatively and decisively.    Routine business requiring decisions in departments is handled by a duty minister, perhaps a minister in the Lords or one standing down from the Commons.

Purdah will start with the dissolution of Parliament which is scheduled for 30 March, although it may be brought forward.    It then remains in place until a new government is formed.   If the present state of the parties in the opinion polls persists, this may not be an easy matter and would not be concluded as quickly as it was in 2010.   Even if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were in a position to form a new coalition, there would be the issue of the EU referendum to resolve, while as the Lib Dems would almost certainly have fewer seats, there would be difficult discussions about ministerial portfolios.   Nick Clegg, if re-elected, might want a department rather than the deputy prime minister post which has been seen to have breadth rather than depth.

Civil servants generally see the period of purdah as a chance to complete their preparations for any incoming administration.   Civil service holiday entitlements remain relatively generous and many of them may take a holiday during this period.

What is often not appreciated is that purdah also applies to politics academics, at least those in receipt of ESRC grants.   Many of us are in demand for media commentary much of the time, but the workload goes up in a pre-election period.    There have been complaints in the past that the rules are too restrictive and impinge academic freedom.[i]

This year’s guidance strongly advises against issuing press releases during the election period.   It is advised that they should be cleared by the ESRC press office.[ii]   Researchers asked to provide comment on the election should do so under their university affiliation and not attribute research to the ESRC, quite tricky if it is the basis of the researcher’s comments.   Any posts to websites and social media platforms which should be done with due care [which should be the case anyway given the risks of something going viral] and with due attention to the principles set out.   The ESRC realises that this guidance contradicts its usual position that ESRC research should always be attributed.

I would be surprised if similar rules or restrictions applied in the United States, but then the completion of a new administration takes far longer.   The rules might also be seen to be in breach of constitutional rights to freedom of speech.

Wyn Grant is a political scientist at the University of Warwick, and has published widely on the subject of political studies. He also held the Presidency of the Political Studies Association. 



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