Following the much-criticised police and crime commissioner elections on 15 November, controversy and recrimination abound. Post-election analysis reveals considerable public disquiet about both the concept of PCCs and the conduct of the elections. The Labour party, which opposed the legislation, must learn the important lessons from this fiasco and prepare its own policy in time for the 2015 general election. It needs to act now to restore public confidence in the democratic governance of the police.
The average election turnout of just 15 per cent for the 41 police force areas was a record peace time low. The five lowest were Staffordshire (11.6 per cent), West Midlands (12 per cent), Merseyside (12.4 per cent), Essex (12.8 per cent) and Thames Valley (12.9 per cent). While government ministers blamed this on a lack of familiarity and understanding of the PCC role, authoritative commentators were less charitable. Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, which is currently conducting a review into the election process, said, ‘The government took a number of decisions about how to run these elections that we didn’t agree with.’ The Electoral Reform Society described the elections as a ‘comedy of errors’ and have also looked at the low turnout. Its findings are instructive. Not only did a majority of respondents disagree with the concept of PCCs, a significant number felt they had insufficient information to participate. It is clear there was massive voter indifference to these elections caused by a combination of election timing (November), lack of information (some of which was only available online), a rejection of the concept itself (against politicising the police), huge, possibly unmanageable, constituencies and the unknown calibre of the candidates.
The prime minister and the home secretary have claimed a legitimate mandate for the new PCCs. Unsurprisingly, many others disagree profoundly. The winning candidates were elected with just seven per cent of the total electorate and, in some cases, less than four per cent. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, in describing the elections as a ‘shambles’, claimed the decision by 85 per cent of the electorate not to vote was evidence that the £100m election costs would have been better spent on employing 3,000 more police officers. Government hypocrisy has been highlighted by the police themselves. An illuminating blog quotes leading Conservatives from the time of the PCS union’s announcement of a strike of border guards in July 2012. Here are just two of them: ‘With only around one in 10 voting for industrial action, they have no authority to call their members out on strike’ – Damian Green MP ; ‘Any ballot in which fewer than half of those eligible to vote do so should be ruled invalid’ – Priti Patel MP.
Much has been made of the record numbers of spoiled ballot papers on 15 November. An analysis by Alan Renwick, reader in comparative politics at Reading University, based on detailed returns from 31 police force areas, suggests some evidence of more significant spoiling of ballot papers as a protest. The 120,336 (2.9 per cent) spoiled or rejected votes compares with just 0.3 per cent for recent general elections. However, Renwick urges caution in drawing conclusions from his analysis since the extent of deliberate spoiling may be exaggerated. He offers three main reasons for high spoiling, namely, the confusion over electoral system, dissatisfaction with the candidates and disapproval of the election. Rather than spoiled ballot papers, he suggests that the main story from the elections is low turnout.
A recurring criticism is the absence of information about both the PCC elections and the candidates. The ERS was especially scathing, the Home Office drawing most of its opprobrium. Its website hosts an ironic five-point plan, which details the actions for ensuring a low turnout. Clearly, full information about the elections and the candidates should have been mailed to electors by the police authority returning officers, supplemented by public service broadcasts on local radio stations to raise awareness. The ERS is urging voters to write letters to each of the party leaders to review urgently the localism agenda which, it claims, is now in tatters.
Another area of concern is how the key relationships between PCCs and their chief constables will develop. Already, there have been casualties; the chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police, Colin Port, has stepped down, following a conversation with PCC Sue Mountstevens, who advised him he would need to reapply for his job when his contract expires in January 2013. Port, a highly experienced and able chief constable, will be a loss to the police service. The police staff associations fear this may develop into a pattern, where PCCs install their preferred candidates to run their forces, particularly at a time when there is a dearth of able and experienced chief officers to fill the top ranks.
The government claims that PCCs will offer a direct conduit to the communities they serve. However, many forces cover large geographic areas, have significant populations and comprise diverse communities. Thames Valley, for example, with a population of 2.3 million, covers the counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. It has 18 local authorities, including the large towns and cities of Oxford, Reading, Slough and Milton Keynes. The rural communities of west Berkshire are miles apart from the urban sprawl and ethnic mix of Slough. No matter how able the PCC, it will be almost impossible for one individual, even with a deputy, to represent simultaneously the diverse needs of those very different communities.
Given the power of the newly elected PCCs, concerns are being expressed about the measures for policing the PCCs. The newly created Police and Crime Panels have the principal role. ‘The panel provides checks and balances in relation to the performance of the PCC. The Panel does not scrutinise the chief constable – it scrutinises the PCC’s exercise of their statutory functions. While the panel is there to challenge the PCC, it must also exercise its functions with a view to supporting the effective exercise of the PCC’s functions.’ Thames Valley’s PCP comprises 18 local councillors and two co-opted members. Fifteen of the councillors are Tory and just three are Labour. Anthony Stansfeld, the Tory PCC, has a built-in majority. It remains to be seen just how effective these panels are.
The Labour party needs to consider what it will do, should it form the next government in 2015. Given its explicit objections to PCCs when the legislation was first discussed and, in light of the current lessons, it must now develop a clear policy on democratic governance of the police. There should be widespread public consultation, as well as a thoroughgoing analysis of best practice in other countries. The consultation should also include the police staff associations, who feel battered and bruised by their treatment from this government. It may be both sensible and prudent to publish the results in conjunction with the findings of the Independent Police Commission set up by Yvette Cooper. In the meantime, there should be an ongoing critical review of PCCs so that Labour’s policy is informed, objective and practicable. Moreover, the party should make its intentions about such a review clear, as well as detailing the timescales. This whole episode has been an utter farce and it now falls upon Labour to restore public confidence.
Roy Bailey, a former Thames Valley Police superintendent, is a Labour councillor on Bracknell town council and vice– chair of Bracknell CLP. He tweets @RoyBailey
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