The Prime Minister has made the right decision in accepting the Electoral Commission’s proposed change to the EU referendum question. Now, instead of the previous, biased question – ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’ – which forced the two sides into Yes and No positions, voters will be asked ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’.
This is clearly better, and Downing Street is wise to accept the recommendation. Setting the referendum up to be unfair would be wrong, and it would also be politically foolish, undermining the validity of any outcome that such a fix might deliver.
Having agreed with the Electoral Commission on this warning against bias, though, it is surely time for the Government to also accept the Commission’s view on purdah. Back in June, when the intention to suspend the purdah rules first came before Parliament, the Commission’s opposition was very clear:
‘The Commission supports proposals to reinstate restrictions on the publication of promotional material by central and local government.
The Bill provides that section 125 of PPERA (which places restrictions on the publication of promotional material about referendums by Ministers, government departments, local authorities and certain other public bodies during the period of 28 days immediately before polling day) would not apply at the referendum. This could mean that governments and others will be free to spend unlimited amounts of public funds promoting an outcome at the referendum right up until polling day.
The underlying legislative basis for referendums held under PPERA is that campaigners will come forward to put the arguments for each side of the debate to voters. These campaigners are subject to a regulatory regime including limits on the amount that they can spend during the regulated referendum period. In the Commission’s view, there is a risk that the use of significant amounts of public money for promotional activity could give an unfair advantage to one side of the argument.
Unlimited government spending would also undermine the principle of having spending limits for registered campaigners. This has the potential to be particularly significant in the case of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union where there would be four governments in the UK with views on the issue being debated, as well as local authorities who may have strong interests in promoting a particular outcome.’
The Government has already faced one rebellion over the question of purdah, and there are dark mutterings about another this month – the Prime Minister should head that off by doing the right thing, and reinstate the rule.