As today’s the day when England and Wales go to the polls to elect police commissioners, I thought it was about time I set out my thoughts on them, if only so I don’t look too far behind the curve. I’m not going to give you any advice on how to vote, or whether to vote or how to actively not vote, as I feel those few people who do still read this blog are clued up enough to work that out for themselves.
Since the first modern police forces in this country were founded there have been debates about just how they should be run and controlled. Are they a local or a national responsibility? Should they be wholly autonomous and only answerable to the Crown, controlled by local politicians, some balance between those options or something entirely different?
One interesting thing about commissioners is that for all the talk of them being a radical change in the governance of the police, they don’t make much difference in the overall balance of power, with the police caught between local priorities and Home Office dictats. Commissioners aren’t about changing where the power is held, just who holds it in one place – and even then, the old Police Authority regenerates itself into a Police and Crime Panel which will still hold some powers.
For me, the introduction of police commissioners was the solution to a problem that very few people even thought existed. There probably is a need – especially in the light of recent revelations on a variety of issues from Hillsborough to Savile – for a large-scale debate on just what sort of police force we want and how it should be run. However, that debate needed to happen before someone came up with the answer ‘one run by locally elected commissioners’. Instead, we’re now being asked to have our say on police and crime priorities in our area (or whatever it is the posters say) but without actually being given the option to say ‘hold on, we don’t want to run it this way’.
I think this can be seen as one of the lengthening list of things the Liberal Democrats have got wrong in Parliament. If the Tories were determined to push on with this – and they did have it in their manifesto, so there was some vague mandate for it – we should have made them at the very least subject to the same restrictions as elected mayors. They should only be introduced in areas that actively wanted one and voted yes in a referendum for it. Indeed, like the city mayor referendums, those could have been held in May, and the areas that voted yes could then be holding their elections now. As it is, they were instead imposed on everyone (in England and Wales, at least) without ascertaining if there was any real desire or enthusiasm for them.
Like elected mayors, these elections were meant to encourage high-profile independents to stand, but that hasn’t really happened. Mayoral candidates at least had the option to become known in a distinct area, and it’s worth noting that the independents who did win mayoral elections were people who’d become well known in that area beforehand – Ken Livingstone, Ray Mallon, Frank Branston etc. However, the size of the constituency for police commissioner elections means that nowhere has a high-profile independent candidate known across the area. Indeed, there are very few high-profile party-political candidates running.
My prediction is that today will see a very low turnout, possibly around 20%. The problem is that not only is it an election that no one really wanted, there’s been very little campaigning for it, and there’ll be little in the way of polling day operations in many places. People won’t get the little nudges and reminders to vote the way they do in normal elections, and while they may fully well be intending to vote, a lot of them won’t realise until they pick up a newspaper or watch TV on Friday and realise they meant to vote the day before.
As an example, the only leaflet I’ve seen in this election is the official one that came a few weeks ago (surrounded by other junk mail that was delivered at the same time, so in many houses it would have gone straight in the bin). No one’s delivered anything near me, let alone attempted any canvassing and I haven’t seen a single poster on my travels about Colchester. (I was in York earlier this week and the situation was the same there too)
What we’re seeing is the result of the belief that democracy is merely about voting. That forgets that it should be a process in which you engage with the people and create an informed electorate. Instead, we’ve got an electorate that’s being asked to vote for a post they don’t understand the need for or the role of – and one they certainly haven’t asked for – after a campaign that’s told them little about what the different candidates will do if elected. The choice everywhere appears to be between candidates who’ll work to cut crime while listening to people or their rivals who’ll listen to people while working to cut crime (with the occasional pseudo-fascist candidate who’ll work to cut certain types of crime while only listening to certain types of people). Still, let’s just be glad they weren’t introduced twenty years ago with Jimmy Savile standing in West Yorkshire.
This is voting for the sake of voting, an election being held purely as a ritual to summon the great god of Accountability, without anyone ever bothering to think about just what being accountable really needs.
One prediction I will make: these will be the first and last set of police commissioner elections. Sometime before 2016, the positions will be quietly wound up into the Police and Crime Panels, which will start looking just like the old Police Authorities did. It’ll be a brave step backwards into the future of accountability, no doubt.