5 weeks of imperfect balance

In which Caitlin Webb, the UK’s first Local Democracy Reporter, explains to us what purdah is, and how much it impacts an election campaign..

There’s a general election coming. There’s nothing more exciting for a political journalist. It’s where politics gets all serious and things could be really shaken up. We have now entered purdah, the pre-election period.

What is purdah and why is it so important? 

During the weeks before elections, public money cannot be used to influence an election.

This means no publicity can be used to make the current government, or governing party appear better than others. This is because all ministers, cabinet members and all MPs are now candidates so they are fighting for their jobs.

It is a time when public institutions are nervous about what they can and can’t say. Tweets, website posts and newsletters are under scrutiny as councils, governmental bodies and departments are panicking that anything they say or do could count as influencing an election.

While it is annoying for civil servants, journalists and anyone in communications, to have to restrict what they say, it is so vital for democracy. If elected officials could use public money to promote what their political party, corruption would be rampant and we could end up with a one-party state.

What press officers can’t do:

  • Promote things that are “politically controversial”
  • Write press releases refer to certain politicians
  • Give out photos of candidates for campaigns
  • Help candidates with promotional visits or arrange events 

Can do:

  • Publish factual unbiased information
  • Continue normal procedure
  • Quote unelected officials instead of politicians in press releases
  • Use politicians to address emergency situations

So sympathise with councils or political bodies that may have to tell you they can’t tell you anything just before an election. They are trying to hold up democracy and make sure every voter can decide who they vote without prejudice. 

However, you could argue that Boris Johnson has been eyeing up an election since he got into number 10, hence the list of promised the Queen had to read. He used Government procedure to share a list of promises similar to a manifesto without any worries. However we’ve also just had the party conference season so all parties have been promoting their plans, from revoking Article 50 to scrapping Ofsted. 

What’s going to happen in the general election? Who knows, if there’s one thing we’ve all learnt since 2016 it’s that making predictions is a fool’s game. 

Caitlin Webb is a Medway based media relations officer, and formerly the UK’s first Local Democracy Reporter for the BBC and Kent Online.

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