We often use the phrase ‘elective dictatorship‘ to describe the British system of government, reflecting that the nature of our system means that a Government with a majority in Parliament can do pretty much as it wants until the next election. Unlike most actual dictatorships, there are constraints to that power and a Prime Minister or Government can be removed from power if enough of their party decide they want to get rid of them.
Despite ‘elective dictatorship’ not normally being regarded as a positive description, recent years have seen it being rolled out across other forms of government. Believing that ‘strong leaders’ could wield miraculous powers, the Blair government brought in elected mayors for local authorities, concentrating most executive powers for an area in an individual, and even if a council didn’t want a mayor, most of them were forced to shift to the cabinet model – and later to the ‘strong leader’ model, where council leaders would be given effectively the same powers as a mayor, whether they wanted them or not.
This was presented as making local government more ‘democratic’ and ‘accountable’, because one of the persistent myths of British politics – and part of the ‘elective dictatorship’ – is that democracy and accountability are things that only need to happen at the ballot box every few years. Democracy is seen as an act rather than a process with accountability normally being framed as requirements to consult and consider rather than any real controls on the exercise of power. In most cases, any checks on executive power are to potentially block it after it’s announced rather than amend it beforehand.
Which brings us to Police and Crime Commissioners, another classic British case of someone coming up with a solution and then looking for – or creating – a problem that they can fix. In this case, it was the supposed non-accountability of Police Authorities, where accountability had been defined as ‘being known by the public’. Members of police authorities could be removed from their position if they weren’t doing it well, because many of them were appointed directly by councils within that police force’s area. By contrast, although PCCs were elected, no one was given the power to remove them from their office, short of them committing a crime. Police and Crime Panels are required to be consulted and can occasionally block an action by a PCC, but if the PCC’s incompetence isn’t criminal, they can do nothing to remove them from power. The person whose job is supposedly to make the police accountable is so unaccountable themselves, they can’t be removed from their office (unlike just about every other executive office in British politics). That’s why we’ve got the situation we currently have in South Yorkshire, where no one can remove Shaun Wright from office, despite even his own party thinking he should go.
(I know that’s just one part of a bigger issue, and what’s happened in Rotherham is bloody appalling but I really have very little to add to that discussion beyond ‘this is terrible’ as I don’t know how to improve child protection)
The police need to be more accountable to the public they serve (especially when senior police officers think they should be demanding fundamental changes in the law) but PCCs were an ill-thought out way to try and achieve that end. Proper democracy and accountability is an ongoing process of interacting institutions, not an occasional event that grants power to someone and the ability to use it without repercussions. If we want proper accountability it takes work to enable people to hold all power accountable, not and that’s something that can’t be delivered by a gimmick.