A UK rule aims to stop officials from prejudicing voters. The US should do the same

The US could benefit from purdah, too.
The US could benefit from purdah, too.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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These are trying times for voters in the US and the UK. Stateside, Americans must contend with the rise of Donald Trump. Across the pond, British citizens are preparing to vote on whether to leave the European Union.

Trump’s unlikely rise to prominence and the Brexit vote are each driven by many of the same issues—nationalism, xenophobia, and a pervasive sense of economic impotence. But as a dual citizen of both the US and the UK, I’ve been struck by the vast differences in how each of the countries campaign. Nowhere is this difference more pronounced than in the UK’s convention of the purdah, which goes into effect today and limits what government officials can do and say for the four-week period before UK citizens head to the polls on June 23rd.

Purdah is a Persian word that means “curtain” or “veil.” Also sometimes referred to as the “period of sensitivity,” it describes “the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants are in place.” So although prime minister David Cameron is on the record as being against the UK leaving the EU (despite, illogically, calling for the referendum himself), from this point forward he will not be able to use his office to enact any policy or publicity that might sway the public. Meanwhile, during the general election in 2015, official guidance stated that ministers were expected to postpone “decisions on matters of policy on which a new Government might … take a different view from the present Government” and “not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality.”

Stephen Fisher is a sociology professor at Oxford University’s Trinity College who studies elections. He says the purdah convention is reflective of a larger approach to British elections that is starkly different from America’s. You can find a hint of that disparity, he says, in the language used in each nation.

“In the US you ‘run for office’ and in Britain you ‘stand for election,’” Fisher says. “There is a calmer, less dynamic, and less frantic approach to the way that elections and political competitions are conducted in Britain compared to the US. There is a longer cycle and different electoral law, and there was traditionally much more of a sense of [having] large periods of time when people weren’t focusing on trying to win the next election.”

The purdah was passed relatively recently in 2000 as part of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. However, according to Dr Andrew Blick, a lecturer in politics and contemporary history at Kings College London, “the idea that ministers should not abuse their position to serve clearly party political ends long predates 2000.” The purdah does not apply to designated campaigners—so candidates can still be on the stump right up until election day. Rather, it applies to government ministers and departments, local authorities, and bodies funded with taxpayer money, excluding the BBC.

The purdah is not the only restriction on UK elections. The Electoral Commission limits campaign expenditure within what is called the “regulated period.” In the case of the Brexit referendum, this period began on April 15th, 10 weeks before the vote. Any individual or group who spends more than £10,000 campaigning for one side must register and report their spending. During 2015’s general election, meanwhile, the regulated period was just under 12 months. Spending limits were capped within that time frame for both sides.

Fisher says that in practice, one of the most tangible outcomes of the purdah is that it inconveniences the government, which can’t push policy along as effectively when it’s in place. For this reason, David Cameron attempted to prevent a purdah from being applied to the upcoming referendum. But the idea that those in power should not be allowed to put the full machinery of the government behind their own election aims is a hugely refreshing departure from the near-constant election chatter in the US.

It’s important to note that the purdah doesn’t apply to the media. It’s hard to judge with any certainty the effect that silencing government and civil servants has on the ensuing media coverage in the run-up to an election. Fisher posits that the restriction tends to cause a “front-loading” of government reports, such as Monday’s Treasury report, which warned of “immediate and profound shock to [the] economy” if Britain votes to leave. Regardless, the idea that voters should have time to debate and contemplate issues without hype from politicians is novel to my American ears.

In recent weeks, the US media has indulged in self-flagellation over the idea that they “created Trump” by giving him endless free publicity ($2 billion worth, according to The New York Times). But a more compelling explanation for Trump’s rise may be that he is the inevitable product of a political system that is more focused on campaigning than governing.

US election cycles have stretched to become a two-year bloodbath. If you consider what political scientists call the “rule of anticipated importance,” Trump benefitted from a long period where he could convince the electorate of how much he mattered. In that time, there were also comparatively few restrictions on what he could spend.

But what if Trump had campaigned in a climate that had an aim of civic impartiality? What if running for office wasn’t a money-raising contest, and campaigning mid-way through a sitting president’s term was viewed as counter to the nation’s best interests? In that alternative scenario, I have a hunch Trump’s main assets—storytelling and deep pockets—might not have gotten him so far.

The debate around Brexit has certainly been fervent and, at times, ugly. But at least it hasn’t been long. The date of the referendum was only announced in February, giving the saga just four months to unfold.

Given the seemingly endless slog of the US election, it’s hard not to yearn for a similar spirit of electoral restraint in America. Until then, I’ll be counting down the 164 days until November 8th.