The EU Referendum, Purdah, Fixing The Rules, Rigging The Outcome
Update: 18.00hrs 08/09/15. Three days after the publication of this article – David Cameron suffers defeat in parliament over ‘purdah’ rules.
The name itself comes from the Persian word “pardeh” meaning “curtain” or “veil”, describing the ensuring of women’s modesty from the world of men. In the British political context, the word refers to the non-promoted condition of the policies of government during a “purdah” period.
In real terms, Purdah is the pre-election period in the UK, specifically the time between an announced election and the final election results. The time period prevents central and local government from making announcements about any new or controversial government initiatives (such as modernisation initiatives or administrative and legislative changes) which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election. Where actual advantage to candidates is proven in law to have been given, this amounts to a breach of Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986.
The purdah period typically begins six weeks before the scheduled election, in each authority on the day the notice of election is published; for the 2015 General and local elections purdah began on Monday 30 March. The election took place on May 7th.
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At the national level, major decisions on policy are postponed until after the purdah period, unless it is in the national interest to proceed or a delay would waste public money.
Purdah also continues after the election during the time in which new MPs and ministers are sworn in. In the event of an inconclusive election result, purdah does not end until a new government forms. When no party has an overall majority, it may take some time before a minority or coalition government is formed.
As you can see, breach of Purdah carries with it, in the worst cases the possibility of actions for abuse of power and misconduct in public office – a serious offence. Well, it used to be anyway.
And, so to the next implementation of Purdah which will be the announcement of the “in/out” EU referendum. The Conservatives’ election manifesto promised to hold a referendum (a nationwide vote) on whether or not the UK should stay in or leave the European Union. They won the election so it’s all systems go.
During the election the Lib Dems and Labour both said they did not want a referendum unless there were plans to transfer more powers from the UK to the EU. Labour has since dropped its opposition, so the Conservatives are expected to get their Referendum Bill passed easily. The House of Lords could delay it, but as the referendum was promised in the Conservative election manifesto it is not likely to reject the bill once MPs back it.
David Cameron is not revealing the full details of what he wants from the other EU leaders ahead of negotiations – but he is expected to demand an opt-out from one of its core principles of forging an “ever-closer union” between member states. He will also try to get restrictions on welfare benefits – in particular, tax credits – for migrants and more powers to block or opt out of new EU laws.
About 33% of the British public want to exit the EU and about 45% want to stay in. HERE is a run-down of the pro’s and con’s.
David Cameron, well known for delivering manifestos of meaningless promises wants to win his argument and the EU referendum – and he will, as usual, do this at all costs.
As a rule of thumb, it isn’t a good sign when a Government announcement is released late on in the day. At best it suggests things being done on the hoof; at worst it suggests a hope that the news will land sufficiently late that journalists won’t have time to scrutinise it fully before their evening deadlines.
So when the proposed compromise amendments on the EU referendum and Purdah weren’t published until nigh-on 5 o’clock, it’s fair to say alarm bells should be ringing. We should all support the use of Purdah in order to guarantee the referendum is fair.
All we knew in advance of the decision to reintroduce purdah to the Bill was that it would likely include some ‘exceptions’. The last minute flurry of amendments which have eventually been released appear to contain two important points.
The first is Amendment 1, which establishes powers over the Purdah and promises new regulations on its use. Essentially, the amendment gives the Government the power to alter or indeed abolish Purdah entirely at a later point in the process. Furthermore, the regulations which it promises won’t be written until after the Bill has passed.
This is less than reassuring. The Government’s view on the value of purdah was made quite clear when it initially tried to scrap it outright for this referendum. At that stage, Ministers asked MPs to rely on their assurances that they would never unfairly exploit the lack of a purdah period. This amendment, which has only come about because of the risk of a new rebellion and potential defeat, essentially asks exactly the same thing – that MPs should accept promises rather than a full Purdah guaranteed in law. Various backbench MPs are understandably sceptical.
So, Amendment 1 means the government can amend Purdah whenever it wants to suit its own agenda and even abolish it at will if things aren’t going their way. The second amendment means that the scope of Purdah can be reduced or watered down.
And, it is here that David Cameron will be exposed. These amendments have been made for a reason, of course.
The 2000 Act is explicit in forbidding all Government spending on any of the issues at hand, allowing no fudging. By contrast, this amendment would be eminently vulnerable to fudge. It’s easy to foresee glowing Government TV adverts about, say, trade (which might happen to feature a lot of positive commentary on trade with EU member states), or heavily-publicised Home Office announcements about catching criminals (who might happen to have been retrieved through the European Arrest Warrant) being excused as only incidentally related to the matter at hand rather than “directly addressing the question”. Under this amendment such sleight of hand could well be allowed, even though it would clearly be a taxpayer-funded intervention in the referendum campaign.
An interpretation of changing the rules of an election by the ruling party in most countries is called ‘rigging’. And Minsters pressured MP’s to rely on their assurances? This the the same conservative party that;
Quietly introduced a 23% increase in campaign spending limits against the advice of the Electoral Commission and knowing they were the only party to benefit
Used public money to bankroll their election campaign — massively increasing advertising spend on pet projects in the months before the poll
Introduced individual voter registration in a manner which saw one million people disenfranchised — people that the Tories know are less likely to vote for them
Brought in a draconian law which sought to gag charities and other groups from speaking out during the months before an election campaign
Reformed funding rules to choke off Labour Party donations, breaching the protocol that such changes should be introduced with cross-party agreement.
In addition, there is much evidence of the type of tactics we can expect from the Tory camp just by looking at the recent Scottish referendum. The party pumped out an aggressive and uninspiring message to voters. The Prime Minister insisted he was running a “positive campaign”.
Even the Bank of England got in on the negative campaign, along with major retail corporations and banking giants – all threatening to pull out of Scotland in a shocking display of desperation as they vomited up a propaganda campaign just as Cameron’s team looked liked it might possibly lose.
Do not think for one moment that the EU referendum will be fought fairly and squarely – to the contrary. The stage is already being set – a rigged outcome by way of technical changes to the electoral system we think is built around a system of democracy. Once politicians have done their bit, they will simply change the rules to suit their argument and then deploy the propaganda machine via the heavy guns to frighten, intimidate and terrorise the electorate until it gets what it wants.
Graham Vanbergen – TruePublica