Well done to Alan Billings and Labour campaigners in the South Yorkshire Police area. Last week, I was reading that the United Kingdom Independence party was ‘expected’ to gain this police and crime commissioner position. This week, I am reading much less about the fact that Labour and Alan succeeded in getting more than 50 per cent of the vote. The Ukip ‘march’ is not inevitable and strong local campaigning is the way to maximise Labour votes.
That is the good news. The worrying news for police accountability is that only 14.88 per cent of people voted in the election. And this wasn’t just because it was a by-election. Only 14.93 per cent voted in 2012 when all the PCCs were first elected. Couple this with the 10.4 per cent turnout in the West Midlands PCC by-election over the summer and it is clear that this role has certainly not captured the imagination of the public.
That is not to say that there have not been some successes of a more direct form of police accountability. Good PCCs have given a drive to public consultation, focused more on victims and challenged unacceptable senior police behaviour and performance. Almost anything would have been better than the largely unknown and invisible former police authorities. That is why I struggled during my time as home secretary to find a way of greater directly elected accountability which could focus police more clearly on the public’s needs and wishes. I failed to win support for a model based on some direct election to police authorities – local government was unwilling to give up the role of nominating members. I should have pushed on, but time was short and political will lacking at the end of our time in government.
While I was struggling with issues of police accountability, I probably failed to recognise the full implications for ‘people power’ and responsiveness of the enormous progress that we made in delivering neighbourhood policing. Proportionally I suspect far more people attended the monthly neighbourhood police meetings and surgeries, or used the new ways of communicating with the teams, or just talked to the local beat officer and police community support officers than ever thinks of voting in a PCC election. We removed all centrally set targets for police forces apart from one which measured confidence that police were responding to local concerns. We supported a cadre of community activists to work alongside neighbourhood police teams, amplifying the voice of local people and challenging police activity at the street and community level. We got all police forces to sign up to standards on public engagement and responsiveness in the Policing Pledge.
All of this work was scrapped by this government. Some PCCs, particularly Labour ones, have recognised the significance of neighbourhood policing and tried to maintain it, but cuts and a general lack of national interest have led to a rolling back of the progress.
I can understand why Yvette Cooper has announced the scrapping of PCCs. Given the money spent on elections which fail to grab public attention it is a sensible saving. However, what replaces them will be a test of our commitment to accountable and responsive policing and to devolving power to communities and people. Reinvigorating the neighbourhood policing model will be more significant than the tussle over which local politicians – directly or indirectly elected – now provide the formal political accountability.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.