Today, voters in England and Wales (except London) will have the opportunity to vote for Police and Crime Commissioners to replace the Police Authorities which had, largely unobserved, provided governance input into local policing. Although the opportunity is there, it is likely that turnout for the elections will be the lowest for any national election, estimated by some to be as low as 15% of registered voters. Certainly when I went to vote earlier this morning there seemed to have been barely half a dozen people voting ahead of me in the two hours since the polling station had opened.
This is likely to be for a number of reasons: amongst others, the limited campaigning and lack of funding for a mailshot from each candidate, voting being at an unfamiliar time of the year, there being little public demand for the post in the first place, from those who are interested a belief that the police should not be under the direct responsibility of a politician, and at least in some areas, the lacklustre candidates.All this will be chewed over for a little while elsewhere so I’m not going to rehash those arguments.
Instead, I look at why this apparently rather sorry apathy about what was a manifesto commitment from the Conservatives in 2010 has been allowed to develop. After all, in a coalition government where getting parts of each Party’s manifesto implemented is at a premium, it seems a bit of a waste to get something implemented and then not seem too bothered about it.
The Poison Pill
My suspicion is that the PCC elections are a bit of a poison pill. That is, although the Conservatives, whose idea they were, seem to have resigned themselves to low turnouts and the likelihood that many of their candidates will be defeated by the usual anti-government protest votes the long game makes it worth having the elections now. The localism agenda behind the PCCs being established and a desire to concentrate local power in individuals representing broader areas seems to be real. It may give an opportunity for existing strangleholds on local power through council elections to be broken or at least challenged. That is unlikely to benefit the government today but may be useful in the future, particularly given that the coalition was always likely to govern as if it were only a single term government.
Labour campaigned against the PCC posts being created and so are running for offices which they believe ought not to exist. Some of their candidates have even spoken of wishing to be the first and last PCC in their area. However, I suspect that they will rather change their tune if they win. If there are a substantial number of Labour PCCs, I doubt that the party, were it to win the 2015 General Election, would abolish the posts. Indeed, even if there are a lot of non-Labour winners and these prove to be popular and effective, it would be hard to see how they could be abolished. In the least likely event of most PCCs being from right of centre parties the lure of beating them in 2017 to bolster a new Labour government in mid-term might also be too much to resist.
The longer term aim of the Conservatives seems to be to bring in powerful local directly elected mayors on the model of London, even though these were largely rejected in the referenda that a number of places had during the council elections in May of this year. Just as they opposed the creation of the London Mayor but then benefited from the chance to unseat Ken Livingstone, having a low-key start to the existence of PCCs but the chance of things being more contentious for the next election particularly against incumbent Labour PCCs might be just right strategically. This is an opportunity for all however, rather than being a party political one – once in place every PCC will know that they need to do a good job and raise their own profile even if they opposed the policy. Abolishing the PCCs for being useless is a dangerous game for anyone who is in the same party as the useless!
The campaign here has been pretty invisible. Information on all the candidates can be found here. That’s not too surprising for many reasons but still I’ve been disappointed at the minimal communication from candidates who would have a route to address me. We have two Labour and one Lib Dem councillor in my ward in Leeds so they have the local connection to have enabled them to have sold their candidates (to be fair one of the Labour councillors has tweeted a couple of times in support of their candidate). I’m also a member of the Conservatives but have had nothing beyond the national email shot from Theresa May – indeed there’s been spectacularly little activity from their candidate generally and even their selection was somewhat shrouded in mystery with the candidate names not being disclosed before the selection meeting (or even whether there was more than one candidate).
So, my vote has gone to Ced Christie the independent. He has at least looked like trying to think about what the role should be for and to have sketched this out beyond the usual platitudes. Curiously, shortly after his candidacy was announced I and presumably others (given that I’m nobody!) received anonymous smears about his character and his brother’s business dealings. However, he did address those in an open way immediately that they came out and the allegations did not look like they were being made in a public-spririted way. Recent events regarding the integrity of the police and the resignation of the West Yorkshire Chief Constable make me think that a PCC who has stated a mission against corruption may be worth having, particularly in a contest against the 10 year head of the Police Authority (who curiously most will only have heard of now that they are standing as PCC) and another former Police Authority member.
Anyway, have a look at the materials available online and go and vote if you can. The PCCs aren’t likely to disappear because of a low turn out this year and if you don’t want the wrong sort to be doing the job even for a short while, it is worth taking the time.