OPINION: Elections prompt purgatory purdah

With local elections now only three weeks away, public sector staff all over the country are once again heading into that strange limbo land called purdah

It’s an odd, slightly unreal place, where comms staff in particular have to pretend they are no longer interested in supporting their political leaders.

The notion is that public servants are supposed not to use public money to campaign on behalf of political parties.

So while politicians’ campaigns reach fever pitch in the three weeks leading up to the elections, those paid directly by the taxpayer avoid doing anything that might give undue pol­itical advantage.

For comms people whose every instinct is to seek positive coverage, purdah is a kind of artificially-imposed coyness.  Rather appropriate for a word which derives from the Islamic practice of preventing men from seeing women.

In London, there is just over a year to go before the 2008 Mayoral and London Assembly elec­tions, so Ken is purdah-free and well stuck into early electioneering.  Staff, officers and Mayoral agencies such as Transport for London and the London Development Agency are all swinging firmly behind his third term agenda – and woe betide them if they don’t.

Nationally however, there is a curious kind of ‘double purdah’ going on, with Whitehall stren­uously observing both the local elections in May but also, post May, the election of Gordon Brown in the summer. The thinking goes that no-one wants to give Gordon a difficult first term in office.  Nor does anyone want to deprive him of making the big decisions himself.  This is having the effect of putting off a whole load of really difficult decisions, from road pricing to reconfiguring hospitals, and much in between. 

For those involved in policy areas which need long-term, strategic thinking (like health and transport, for example) this double purdah will cause serious problems from now until well into the summer.  Hard decisions need to be taken for long term benefit, not short term gain.

As James Freeman Clarke observed: “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.”  And he should know – he campaigned against slavery.

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