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Purdah Explained

If you're involved with government, at any level, you can't help but notice official business grinding to a halt in the run up to an election. Even if the election is for another level of government entirely!

That's all thanks to the concept of 'purdah'.

What is Purdah?

The word is a loan from Urdu, literally meaning 'curtain' or 'veil' and referring to the practice of female seclusion - through physical segregation and / or the wearing of form concealing clothing. In Britain the word came to mean 'isolation', and was eventually used to refer to the restrictions in place in the run up to an election, when public resources must not be used for party political purposes.

Because of the word's origins in female oppression the Welsh guidance is to use the term 'pre-election period' instead.


How does it work?

As a principle, I think we'd all agree that the 'heightened sensitivity' of the pre-election period is a good thing. Political candidates in the UK are meant to be on equal footing, in terms of spending limits, etc, and having civil servants and publicly funded institutions putting their clout behind any particular candidate wouldn't be fair.

In practice, the individual liability of civil servants for breaking purdah leads to overkill. Because on the one hand you have sensible actions like stopping a local authority issuing publicity which might sway voters. But, on the other, you have trickle down effects like politicians being unable to represent their institutions at anything lest it be seen as an endorsement.

Sunday, for example, I had to fill in last minute to lay a wreath at Cwmbran's Remembrance service on behalf of Torfaen County Borough Council because I'm technically apolitical as chair of council. If another politician had lain it then it could be argued the Council was actively supporting and providing a platform for their political views...

Still, until a Westminster government does the sensible thing and overhauls how it works, the pre-election period is here to stay. It begins six weeks before an election - November 6th this time around - and essentially means no political business or new policy decisions are made until it is over.

Realistically speaking, given the time scales, that will mean after Christmas.

Guidance from the Local Government Association:

For more like this, please click the image below:
Civic Life in the UK


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