What is election Purdah and why does it exist?

General Elections in the UK are strictly regulated. For example, there are restrictions on spending, with each campaign able to spend a limited amount depending on the number of candidates they are putting forward. These rules and regulations are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) and are monitored and enforced by the Electoral Commission, an independent body that exists to ensure elections are transparent and fair. In addition there is something called Purdah, which is an important part of the election process in the UK.

What does Purdah mean?

Purdah is a term in British politics that refers to a period in which governments are expected to act in a way that is mindful of the upcoming election. The period of Purdah is defined by the type of election. For General Elections Purdah comes into effect at the start of the official election campaign (which by law must last for at least six weeks). During this period, for example:

As Cabinet Secretary Simon Case is expected to ensure Purdah is followed across the civil service prior to an election.

⁃ The Government are expected not to enact any new initiatives that might well be considered to be of political benefit to them.

⁃ Public funds cannot be used for any form of political campaigning.

⁃ Civil Servants must not answer questions about the potential implementation of party manifestos.

⁃ The Civil Service (who are required to be politically impartial anyway) monitor and ensure they Purdah is enforced throughout the different Government departments.

When does the Purdah period end?

In the case of General Elections the period of Purdah does not end with the close of the ballot but instead when a new Government is formed. his is important in the event of there being a ‘hung parliament’ and different parties considering options for coalition. This was evident in 2010 when the Conservatives were the largest party but did not have a majority. Gordon Brown therefore remained a temporary Prime Minister until a Government could be formed. Insiders to the Brown camp after the 2010 election describe him as being desperate to do something proactive, but being reminded by the Civil Service of his responsibilities under Purdah. On this occasion, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat’s agreed a Coalition Agreement and ended up in Coalition Government for five years.

Is Purdah legally enforceable?

The High Court found that Purdah could not overrule a court order.

Purdah is not written into statute, meaning it is a convention in UK Politics. This was confirmed in a High Court case called R. v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In this case the Government was taken to court having taking a decision not to publish its ‘clean air strategy’. They had been required to do so following an earlier court judgement. The deadline for publication of the report fell within the purdah period before the 2017 General Election and the government said that it could not publish it during this period. However, the High court ruled that as Purdah was not prescribed in statute and therefore could not override a court order.

What happens on Polling Day?

On Polling day there are strict rules that dictate behaviour. These are outlined in the Polling Stations (Regulation) Bill of 2007. For example, it is unlawful for anyone to do any of the following within 250 metres of a polling station:

– Distribute campaign materials.

– Orally tell someone how they should vote.

Most notably, on polling day this extends to the media who are not allowed to discuss Politics while polling booth are open. This is why there has been a phenomenon of taking photos of dogs are polling stations in recent years to fill the void created by the media outage on election day:

A typical image of election day.

Does Purdah apply to local elections too?

With the English, Welsh and Scottish Local Elections taking place on the 5th May it is worth asking whether Purdah also applies to local elections. The answer is it does – whilst it is not called Purdah. Instead it is called a period of ‘heightened sensitivity’. This three-week period began on 14th April 2022 and follows the same fundamental principles as General Election Purdah.

Article Summary

Purdah is a period that exists in the pre-election period in order to constrain the government and ensure it is not using its incumbency to receive an electoral advantage.

Key Terms

Purdah – The pre-election period in which rules are put in place to prevent the Government from politicising issues to their electoral advantage.

2 thoughts on “What is election Purdah and why does it exist?

  1. David Pearce Music Reviewer

    Very clearly explained. I assume that this is what the Conservatives were up in arms about – wrongly in my opinion as it was TfL – when the Elizabeth Line opening was announced. I had heard of purdah but didn’t realise that local elections had a period of ‘heightened sensitivity’.

    1. politicsteaching

      Yes, I think they have a fair point. It’s a very significant announcement to be made this close to polling day and is certainly contrary to the spirit of the Purdah expectations.


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