» police commissioners ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Why was turnout so abysmal in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections?? – Great post by Jennie Rigg looking at the reasons.
Spoilt Ballots in the PCC Elections: What Do the Numbers Tell Us? – And following that, some data on just how many ballots were spoilt, and for what reasons.
Don Jimmy Gambino OBE – Archie Valparaiso on how Jimmy Savile’s activities in the 50s seem more like those of a mob boss than a DJ
The Lib Dem Activist Blues – Jennie Rigg sets them to music.
The curious question of Tory nationalism – Simon Titley writes for the new Liberator blog. “Yet here we are, 56 years after Suez, and most of the Conservative Party (along with UKIP) continues under the delusion that Britain is still a superpower. It is expressed in terms of a go-it-alone braggadocio, with a corresponding disdain for Johnny Foreigner. It is the politics of the gut, not the brain. And it is completely and utterly counter-productive.”

And as a special bonus, a fun quote from here: ‘the ideal Labour supporter’s article now consists of the words ‘One Nation” repeated several hundred times, with an occasional “audacious“, “Ed Miliband“, “transformational” and ‘details need to be explored further” leavening the one nation pudding.’

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Petition watch

A couple of petitions to the Government that people who read this might be interested in signing:

Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Nov 15th elections : My vote was a “No” vote – I plugged this a lot during the week on social media, and it’s a very good way of making clear that people object to the concept of police commissioners, and the low turnout last week wasn’t just apathy.
Add legally binding ‘Reopen nominations (RON)’ & ‘Leave position vacant’ options to all ballot papers – It would be an interesting addition to voting, and give people who don’t like any of the candidates an option to choose beyond spoiling or abstaining. Personally, I’d go for None Of The Above, rather than Re-Open Nominations. From personal experience running elections at Essex SU, many people didn’t understand ‘re=open nominations’, but ‘none of the above’ makes a lot more sense to people.

And an old petition that you can still sign and I think deserves support: put Alan Turing on the £10 note.

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Jennie Rigg and James Graham have both written posts recently that have touched on issues that have been concerning me. To quote Jennie:

And because people are just generally pissed off with politicians, political media, and elections this feeds into the perception that there is a lack of meaningful choice – if all politicians are the same and they are all venal scumsucking money-grubbing bastards, why bother to try to choose between them? It won’t make any difference.

And James:

What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours

(Read the whole thing from both of them, of course)

We’re sleepwalking into a democratic crisis in this country. In fact, we may already be in the middle of the one. I know there’ll be lots of ‘whither democracy?’ articles floating around the ether after the PCC elections, but they were just a symptom of the ongoing issues that are affecting the country, not the cause of something in itself.

The problem is that in many people’s perceptions democracy has become conflated with ‘voting for things’. We forget that democracy is meant to be an ongoing process, not just something you turn up and do periodically and then forget about. To borrow from Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds:

The core of democracy, for its inventors, was participation. You not only voted, you served in office when called upon. Now, perhaps, a gentleman might think it poor form to discuss politics; his Athenian forebears would think it idiotic not to. Literally idiotic: those who ‘kept out of politics’ were risible, contemptible, ‘The Selfers’, idiôtes, foolishly self-absorbed and out of the swim.

Now, this could be a rant about people not getting involved and not voting. How dare they sit at home when we’ve given them things to vote for! Why would they not want to take the time to have their say about whether they want someone as their PCC who’ll cut crime or someone who’ll priorities crime cutting instead? But that’s definitely not the issue: the problem isn’t that voters are idiots (under any definition of the word) but that the system insists on treating them like they are. People discuss politics and political issues, they do it often and in great depth – they just don’t feel any connection to the political systems that are supposed to deal with these issues. To quote from Jennie again:

The causes of this are many and complex, but a large part of it is the electoral system which forces there two be two big broad church parties of disparate people BEFORE an election rather than coalitions forming after; a large part of it is the media who love to take politicians down and misrepresent them for sensationalist reasons; some of it is a lack of education on politics and its processes; and some of it is the dishonesty of politicians in not admitting that actually, there is very little difference between any of the main parties precisely due to the above effects.

And as James points out, ideology is being slowly removed from British politics in favour of a form of competitive managerialism, where people don’t compete on vision and ideology but on who can best hit a set of ill-defined targets.

And the reaction to this disengagement between the political system and the public is to promise more disengagement. PCCs, like elected Mayors before them, come from the rather Mussolini-esque belief that too much democracy – lots of people discussing different views and coming to a joint conclusion – is horribly inefficient (and nothing’s worse for a managerialist than perceived inefficiency within a system) and we’d be better served by a single leader making all the decisions because – for reasons no one can quite explain, but seem to revolve around the ability to vote them out in several years if they choose to stand for re-election – that one person will be ‘accountable’. Again, this is managerialism in action, where you set one person a group of targets to meet and assess them on whether they make them or not. The problem here is that I’ve never met a voter who makes their decision based on that sort of criteria.

This is why I’m concerned about a democratic crisis in this country, as voters become more and more disengaged from the system, and the system responds in ways that only deepen the divide and invite contempt. As well as government, though, there’s a crisis of trust in many institutions in the country: the police after Hillsborough and other events, the BBC after Savile, the press after phone hacking, and so on. Add to that all the problems of the economy and austerity and we’ve got all the precursors for a complete collapse of confidence in all institutions in place.

My fear is that we’re in a position similar to Italy’s in the early 90s, and all we’re lacking is a Berlusconi to come along and take advantage of the situation. The main political parties are all seeing their membership dwindle and their capacity to engage the public be correspondingly reduced, and there’s a huge vacuum waiting to be filled. People want to be engaged in politics and political discussions, but they’re not getting that from the system at the moment. As I wrote a few months ago, the parties have reduced politics to a big game, and people want more from it than that. Given the right message, the right funding and the right figurehead, a British version of Forza Italia could bulldoze the other parties out of the way – and thanks to our electoral system could be swept into a huge majority and near-absolute power. We might be lucky and get a movement led by someone who wants to be a benign dictator in the style of De Gaulle, or we might be unlucky and find ourselves like Italy after the early 90s, finding we’ve got rid of one damaged system to replace it with one that’s worse.

That’s where my fear comes from – that this perfect storm of crises might be used by certain forces to bounce us into a system of government that’s a long way from where we are today. Scotland might be lucky enough to get away from it if that were to happen, but what of the rest of us?

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Despite the fact I think that we shouldn’t be having Police and Crime Commissioners, I’m finding it hard to ignore the announcement of results that’s going on today. The electoral geek in me has come out, especially as the news I’m hearing from the Essex count is very interesting – the Conservative candidate has a lead after the first round, but the independent Mick Thwaites might be able to close that gap with second preferences. Results from across the districts show that the other independent candidate, Linda Belgrove, has also done well.

The problem, though, is that this information is coming from what people who are at the count are tweeting. Officially, none of this is available to the wider world until the result is announced, and even then the announcement will just be the basic result for the whole county, not the breakdown by district. (As happens with European elections, the district-level results may be released later)

This is the way all our elections get counted, with all the votes cast for a post announced together, and from what I understand it’s another way in which Britain stands alone. In other countries, votes are counted by where they’re cast, these results are announced and then aggregated together to give an overall result. This is what we saw in the US election a fortnight ago, with results being declared by precinct (roughly equivalent to a British polling district), and most of those announcements being made online on an official election site. This is why US media have the ability to call states before counts are completed – from seeing the results as they come in, they can project the result for the rest of the state.

Over here, though, that information isn’t announced, and we all must wait until the full result is announced. Surely it’s not beyond the ability of returning officers to arrange counting and announcement by polling district, and for the Electoral Commission to create a site or sites for these results to be announced on? (Indeed, researchers and academics would probably find a single database of all local election results very useful, rather than having to scrape them from individual council sites)

Declaring results by district would give everyone a lot more information – not just who won where, but how turnout varies across an election – and would likely make election counts and declarations more interesting. What would we need to do to make it happen?

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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.

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Why you are wrong, by James Delingpole – Actually by Generic Parody, but indistinguishable from the original.
He’s Behind You – Adam Curtis looks at the story of Muammar Gaddafi.
David Miliband and the Labour art of speaking in code – John Harris on how Labour politicians are in the habit of writing lots while saying nothing. I’m quite sure I could find the samples needed for a Liberal Democrat version of this too, though. See also this post by Jamie at Blood and Treasure
A Warning about Matthew Brown – In the last Worth Reading, I linked to a story about American right-wingers backing an independent candidate for Lincolnshire’s police commissioner. The story gets weirder – and the candidate has now withdrawn from the contest – with the revelation that his campaign manager is a serial con artist and/or fantasist.
It stands to reason, skeptics can be sexist too – I’ve linked to similar pieces to this one by Rebecca Watson before, and so I wasn’t going to link to it. But then I saw some of the abuse she’s getting for it, and figured that it needs to be seen and read by as many people as possible.

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Including two from the Telegraph, in what’s probably a first:

Drug laws and evidence-based policy: it’s time to start doing experiments on the British people – One day, someone at the Telegraph is going to sack Tom Chivers for injecting sense into their website.
The secret US lobbyists behind Police and Crime Commissioner election – Interesting news from Lincolnshire. (Update: It turns out that this story was based on incorrect information – I suggest following the links in the next few Worth Reading lists for more)
Clegg has quietly resigned from the lightning conductor role – which is to his advantage, but another problem for Cameron – Alistair Campbell’s take. I don’t agree with all of it, but a perspective worth looking at.
An open reply to a self-published author – “So here’s your choice: you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because you haven’t plugged it enough, and as such you can use every channel of desperate huckterdom that the internet provides (and, by heaven, there are dozens more than you’ve yet discovered), you can do anything other than writing more and better in an attempt to shift that product, and you can send more emails like this one hoping for someone to tell you the magic answer to your problem, so long as that answer isn’t “well, you know, maybe your book just wasn’t actually very good?”, and you can spend the rest of your life blaming the unfair world for failing to recognise your genius, despite all the effort you put into telling people that you had it. Or you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because it’s just not as good as its competition in the market.”
Police the police – Liam Pennington makes some good points about the pointlessness of police commissioner elections. However, see also this piece by Chris Williams on the history of municipal policing in Britain for some interesting context.

And as a bonus, not something to read, but look at: how ‘skeptics’ and realists view climate data.

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