The government's EU leaflet row: explained

Political advertising buff Benedict Pringle explains the furore over the Government's plan to spend £9.3 million on a direct marketing campaign lobbying the public to vote to remain in Europe.

The government has announced that it is sending a leaflet to every household in the country, at a cost of more than £9 million, setting out the facts behind the government's position on why Britain should remain in the UK.

Is it legal?

In the Electoral Commission’s guidelines it says the government has "legal duty" to publish a report on the outcome of the negotiations by 15 April.

I understand that the government claim that this is that report.

Even if the government claim that this isn't that report, they would legally still be entitled to send such a document as restrictions on government communication about the referendum don't start until 27 May.

Do governments regularly use public money for political advertising?

Yes. Whether it's advertising the new "living wage" or letting people know about new "investment projects" in their area, the government regularly attempts to change public perceptions about areas of politics.  However in most cases the government can usually get away with explaining such communication away as merely "informing the public".

But if governments didn't try to persuade the public about politics, there would be no need for Purdah period, which prevents central and local government from making announcements about any government initiatives 

Is this leaflet morally acceptable?

Absolutely not. If it was a report on the renegotiation it should have stuck rigidly to the specifics of the discussion and avoided the temptation to use persuasive language or imagery.

If it was sent out because Purdah rules haven't yet begun, it is within the letter of the law but not the spirit, which is clearly trying to make sure that the government doesn't use the resource of the state to affect the result.

Are leaflets a good way to persuade voters?

In the last few general elections political parties have dedicated their biggest spends to direct mail.  Labour spent an incredible £7.3 million (61 per cent of its budget) on what the Electoral Commission disdainfully calls "unsolicited material", whilst the Conservatives spent £4.3 million (27.7 per cent of its total). 

The primary reason for this is that with a nationwide mail shot you can be sure that someone in every household in Britain will see it. And they will likely read it for at least as long as it takes to walk from the door mat to the dust bin.

And it's fair to assume that the types of people who will read it for longer than that will be the types likely to vote in the referendum.

If you had the desire and resources, you could also tailor your message so that it is more specific – and therefore more likely to resonate with – the reader.

They’re pervasive and persuasive, so why is there usually so little news coverage of them?

Philip Cowley, a leading political academic, has coined this phenomenon as "Cowley’s Law", which he describes as the "inverse relationship between the importance of any election campaign technique and the amount of media coverage devoted to it."

In other words, as leaflets are usually associated with communication from pizza delivery companies and minicab services, they’re generally perceived to be deeply unsexy and therefore the media don’t tend to report on them.

Benedict Pringle blogs at

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