A liberal strategy for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections

police_electionsIf it was up to me, we wouldn’t be having Police and Crime Commissioner elections next year. They’re a pointless position, and in most cases appear to have become nothing more than a highly paid spokesperson for the police than providing scrutiny and challenge to them. I don’t get to make those decisions, and as the Government’s now made up of the only party that appear to think they’re still a good idea, we can expect to have another two sets of PCC elections before we get the chance to replace them with a system that might actually do a useful job in holding the police to account.

As they’re here for a while, the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive’s decision that the party should contest the elections with a bit more enthusiasm than we did in 2012 is a welcome one. While there is an appeal in the purity of abstentionism, I don’t believe that sitting on the sidelines and carping about the positions will achieve many liberal goals, whereas by actually taking part, we can achieve things. (It’s also worth noting that while no one would call the results last time good, the party did keep its deposit in all of the 24 contests it stood in, even though we failed to get into the top two in any of the contests)

What’s important, in my opinion, is that the FE shouldn’t just say ‘go ahead, stand’ and then wash its hands of the campaigns themselves. These elections are a great opportunity for us to get get out a message that should reach out to the core vote identified by Howarth and Pack. What we can pretty safely assume is that most of the other campaigns in these elections – Labour, Tory, UKIP and independent – are going to be competitions to see who can shout ‘tough on crime’ the loudest while looking stern in photo ops. There’s no point in us joining in a battle for ground that’s already very heavily contested by others, when we should be looking to reach the voters who are looking for a different kind of message. It’s an opportunity to run a national campaign stressing liberal values, stressing the difference between us and the other parties.

There’s an opportunity for us to set out the case for liberal issues like drug law reform (the Durham PCC’s statements on this may be the first interesting thing a PCC has done in the three years they’ve been around) and civil liberties. These elections will be taking place across all of England and Wales (except for London), and we should treat it as a national election campaign. A lot of areas won’t have any local elections next year, and running it as a national campaign can give lots of people all over the country to chance to take part it. Remember that for a large chunk of the party membership – those who’ve joined since May, and will hopefully keep joining until these elections – what’s drawn them to the party is national issues and liberal values. Running with a distinctive liberal message for these elections will be an investment in the long-term viability of the party and we might still surprise ourselves and others by winning one or two.

Buying justice, and why democracy is about more than elections

One thing that surprised me when I first lived in the US, and continues to stand out as an oddity to me is the election of judges. It confuses John Oliver too, leading to this segment on Last Week Tonight:

For me, it’s a great example of an idea I’ve talked about often, that democracy is not just about having elections, and having more elections doesn’t automatically make things more democratic. Democracy is an ongoing process, not a single event, and that process needs lots of different parts to work together to ensure it succeeds.

Electing judges is a pretty extreme example (from the land of extreme examples) but it does get to the point that judges and politicians have different roles within the democratic process, and electing judges starts to confuse the roles. Roy Moore, the Alabama judge at the start of that LWT item, has run for several political roles while serving as a judge, and that sort of confusion between the judicial and the political is common in US politics.

The point is not to say that judges should be free from and challenge or oversight, but that within a democracy not every post needs to be appointed in the same way. Every post in a democracy is appointed in some way, the question is who does that appointment and how – elections are perhaps the most obvious way of doing it, but that doesn’t make them the best or most appropriate in all circumstances.

We’ve seen it in Britain with Police and Crime Commissioners who were brought in to supposedly make accountability of the police more democratic than the existing system of Police Authorities because direct election, rather than appointment through other elected bodies was seen as ‘more democratic’. What we’ve ended up with, however, isn’t any better scutiny or accountability of the police, but a network of what appear to be very well paid spokespeople for the police, who now get brought out instead of the chief constable when the media need someone for a comment.

Democracy is a complex process, and not one that’s easily solved by simply electing everyone and hoping for the best. Sadly, that’s the message we keep getting sold, where an elected mayor trumps a complete lack of democratic accountability. We’re not likely to be electing judges here, but we need to keep making the arguments for real democracy.

Police and Crime Commissioners, democracy and accountability

police_electionsWe 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.