Five U-turns in two days: Council confusion over by-election purdah

Hackney Town Hall

Purdurbed: Confusion over by-election protocol now ‘resolved’. Photograph: Hackney Citizen.

As events on the political stage nationally have illustrated over the past couple of years, electoral law can be a confusing, arcane business.

Hackney Council has found it can be no picnic at the local level either, as officers appeared to be left unclear on the application of purdah around council communications due to an upcoming by-election in the borough.

The southerly Hackney ward of Victoria will see one of its seat contested by prospective councillors on 18 October, after a vacancy was created by the resignation of Cllr Alex Kuye.

The term ‘purdah’ refers to restrictions on government communications and activity that come into play in the run-up to elections, to ensure that public resources are not spent to benefit a particular political party.

Local Government Association (LGA) advice states that a council could be accused of being in breach of purdah if a reasonable person could conclude that public money was being spent to influence the outcome of an election.

Following a council-facilitated interview on 13 September with Cllr Yvonne Maxwell (Lab, Hoxton West), officers began to register their concern with the Citizen as to the status of the quotes in relation to purdah provided to the newspaper.

Cllr Maxwell is not standing for election in Victoria ward, nor did she mention anything specifically relating to the area or the election campaign.

Nevertheless, on the morning of 14 September the Town Hall appeared worried that any material relating to Labour or its election manifesto could be risky, even going so far as to ask to see a transcript of what had been said. This was not provided.

By 5pm of the same day, officers had relaxed their position, as the nature and subject of the interview was non-contentious.

However, at 5.30pm, a different message came down – this time it was not simply Labour and its manifesto that the council did not want to see published, but anything at all said by Cllr Maxwell.

The Citizen understands that advice received by officers at the time was that, due to the fact that the interview had been facilitated by the council, anything said by a councillor under such circumstances during an election could be dicey.

The Town Hall suggested that the Citizen could re-conduct the interview with the councillor, though the question of how the newspaper could receive her mobile number in a way not facilitated by the council was never overcome.

Just as Citizen journalists had managed to shake off their dizziness, at 7pm officers let them know that the council would now be happy for the interview with Cllr Maxwell to be published.

Unfortunately, by the morning of Monday 17 August, minds had again changed, with the Citizen now informed that the council would prefer the interview not to be published, due to electoral purdah.

The Citizen went on to publish the interview later that same day.

It is understood that councils’ approaches to purdah during a by-election can vary, sometimes with a greater emphasis placed on discretion rather than taking a more stringent blanket policy as with full elections, which may explain the lack of clarity around the issue.

A council spokesperson said: “Hackney Council follows the LGA’s guidance on purdah, which covers council elections and general elections.

“However, there is no specific guidance for purdah during by-elections affecting just one ward.

“There was an initial misunderstanding about how the council would approach purdah for this by-election, which has now been resolved.

“We do not believe that, as stated by the LGA’s guidance on purdah, a ‘reasonable person’ could conclude that we were spending public money to influence the outcome of the election.”

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