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Do you have a voice in the election campaign?

The pre-election period places restrictions on some aspects of what universities, charities, and sector agency staff can do. But, as David Kernohan finds out, it's not as strict as some make out.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Welcome to the pre-election period. It might feel like everyone’s talking about politics, but some in the sector aren’t allowed to say much.

This is for good reason. Political parties are expected to put their case to the public about how the country should be run, and those who work directly for the government should always appear impartial – so the government can appear trustworthy. There are differences in law between charities and political parties, and guidance exists setting out how the former can avoid the many restrictions placed on the latter.

We hear a lot from those who feel restricted about what they can say and do during the election campaign, and unfortunately many are labouring under a false impression. We thought we’d round up what you really can and can’t do during the pre-election period.

There are three overlapping issues that may affect people in the higher education sector.

  • Civil service guidance on impartiality and neutrality applies, obviously enough, to civil servants nationally and locally, and to those working for non-departmental and arms-length public bodies.
  • Charity commission guidance – and restrictions in the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (as amended by the Lobbying Act) apply to those who work for charities. Most public providers, most students unions, and some sector agencies are charities.
  • Other restrictions include those placed on people carrying out funded research, and other requirements that employers may place on their employees.

Those of a certain age may be thinking that I’m talking about “purdah”. The pre-election period was formerly known as “purdah”, and you’ll still hear the word occasionally. Purdah has a specific meaning linked to cultural practice in some Islamic countries around the seclusion of women. It is neither an appropriate nor an accurate metaphor – so here we will use pre-election period as is the modern government practice.

What is important to note is that these restrictions generally apply to organisations and not individuals. In practice countless civil servants and charity sector workers may be quietly involved in political campaigns in their own time – but as long as it is clear that they are not acting on behalf of their employer, there is no issue.

When I worked at HEFCE more than a decade ago, I remember many of my more junior colleagues being involved in political campaigns in their own time – whereas senior staff generally assessed that the risk of being seen as a spokesperson for their employer meant that they could not get as involved as they may have liked. Of course, some junior colleagues with ambitions of promotion behaved accordingly.

The thick of it

The Cabinet Office has published guidance for civil servants and certain other public employees, as it does at the start of every election period. If you are or ever have been a civil servant it is likely you will know the principles well:

  • The country needs to keep running. Government continues – as does all essential and routine business.
  • Decisions on matters of policy on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government should in most cases be postponed
  • Individual officials and agencies should not “undertake any activity that could call into question their political impartiality or that could give rise to criticism that public resources are being used for party political purposes”
  • And government activity should not be seen to compete with the election campaign for public attention.

As an example, the Office for Students is subject to these restrictions. It will be able to provide factual responses to specific questions from the media, but will not offer “spokesperson” quotes, interviews or opinion pieces, and will not issue proactive press releases.

The demands of impartiality and not competing with election campaigns have caused problems for public bodies. We’ve seen events cancelled and statistics delayed that would not – in any reasonable stretch of the information – compete with the campaign for public attention. Caution is understandable, but it can be over applied.

Sometimes pre-election caution can be also used as an excuse not to publish information that may embarrass the current or likely next government. As this period is shaped by custom and not legislation, it can be very hard to make these calls, and again it is understandable that sometimes the choice not to publish may seem easier.

But the government needs to keep running. Publication is often routine – and occasionally essential.

Charity cases

Charities run campaigns. It’s what they do. But there are restrictions on campaigns in support of an individual candidate or political party. Unlike with the civil service, these are set out in statute. Detailed guidance is available from the Charity Commission.

In a nutshell, charities are “not permitted to support or oppose a political party or candidate” and “must not donate funds to political parties”. In many cases the stance of a charity on an issue may be very close to a particular party position, and the charity is permitted to “to campaign on that issue and to advocate its policy as long as it makes clear its independence from any political party advocating the same policy, and does nothing to encourage support for any political party”.

It’s a nuanced position. A great example of how charities can and do get involved in the election campaign without endorsing a party is the 2019 National Union of Students manifesto. Many charities find a manifesto or statement that outlines their policy preferences can shape the debate in ways that further their goals.

NUS is calling for accessible funded life-long education, an end to Brexit, and a healthy society. This is clearly closer to some political party positions than to others, but can fairly be said to represent the views of students – which is what NUS is there for.

Individual SUs, likewise, are running local campaigns – perhaps to encourage students to register to vote, or to encourage candidates to express public support for student views on a local or national issue. Those who go back to 2010 will recall the “vote for students” pledge signed by, among others, Nick Clegg.

Less of an issue in HE, it is important that charities campaign only on things they are founded to campaign on – and there are penalties where charities overstep this.

Universities are generally charities too. Individual providers have tended not to become involved in campaigning, but groups of charities (like Universities UK, for instance) will almost certainly set out manifestos and policy positions in a similar way to students unions.

Again, there is no restriction on the activities of individuals, provided that their actions do not imply that their organisation is supporting a particular party or candidate. As with civil servants, many university staff campaigns on issues and for parties in their own time, but many senior staff feel they are too likely to be seen as representing their employer if they do.

Academic freedom

UKRI has published very helpful guidance on their expectations from the researchers they fund. It is commendably short, so the section directly relating to researchers is worth repeating in full:

Pre-election restrictions do not apply to independent institutes in receipt of UKRI funding such as universities, businesses and charities etc.

Researchers employed directly by UKRI in our institutes, centres and laboratories are able to publish and communicate the findings of academic work during this period but should be mindful of political impartiality.”

Other research funders may have similar expectations of impartiality, not least the many charities that fund research. Others in industry or commerce may have other expectations and these would usually be set out contractually or in discussion. Academic practices around publishing and reviewing research will continue, but if work has a political dimension your employer and funder will likely urge caution.

Employees of any kind of organisation should be mindful that their employer may also impose additional expectations or restrictions during this period. In the HE sector, these restrictions might involve further caution around impartiality, or guidance on the use of social media or on talking to journalists. Elsewhere those who drive company vehicles won’t be displaying “vote Conservative” signs in the windscreen and the manager of your local branch of a coffee chain may not have Labour leaflets on every table. This isn’t suppressing voices, just protecting the brand – and we live in an age where the “brand” of a university is important.

I should add that these restrictions do not end at 10.00pm on election night, they end when a new government is formed. I still fondly remember deciding to inform twitter my exact feelings about a certain senior politician as I waited for the exit poll one year, only to get a late night call from a friendly press officer suggesting that maybe now was not the time. Do enjoy social media on election night, but remember that restrictions may still apply to you.

Wherever you work, if you feel you are being unfairly restricted, raising this with colleagues and your trade union may help. Though caution is understandable, it is unlikely – unless you are a civil servant, or working in communications for a charity – that the pre-election period will much change what you do.

2 responses to “Do you have a voice in the election campaign?

  1. This sentence is missing its conclusion:

    Academic practices around publishing and reviewing research will continue, but if work has a political dimension your employer and funder will like

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