current affairs politics

My elected police commissioner dilemma

This afternoon I will be ambling down the road to my son’s nursery. We’d normally be dropping in for playtime, but it’s closed for the elections. Today I’ll be voting for a police commissioner. I don’t suppose there will be much of a queue. I can’t remember an election so subdued and overlooked, not even the AV referendum. The public appears to be entirely ambivalent towards the idea of elected police commissioners, if they’ve even heard of them.

On paper, elected police commissioners are a good idea. They’re part of the government’s localism vision, giving power back to ordinary people, making local government more accountable and giving us all more say in how things are run. That’s great, and it ought to be good for British democracy.

Except that it’s not that simple. The first problem is that it doesn’t improve on the current system, at least not in my opinion. We currently have Police Authorities, which are committees of both local politicians and independent members. My local one includes people from health, education, law, church and race relations backgrounds, alongside councilors from the various towns in the area. Anyone could apply to be a member, and presumably a simpler alternative to commissioners could have been made to turn police authorities into elected bodies. Instead, they are to be scrapped and replaced by a single person, the elected Police Commissioner.

The US has elected police chiefs and has been something of a model here, but it’s done municipally. Britain’s police districts are often quite large and diverse. My own district, Bedfordshire, has large rural areas and lots of villages, but it also has Luton and its big estates. The current system has representatives from all those communities, but I doubt one person can properly represent them all. And Bedfordshire is one of the smaller police districts.

The other big problem becomes clear when you see the candidate list. Predictably, there is a Labour, a Conservative and a Lib Dem candidate, along with the obligatory right wing option and an independent. The independent is running because he doesn’t think we should be “making our police force politicised.” Most people are thoroughly turned off by our big political parties, who speak for an increasingly small percentage of the population. The idea of dragging party bickering into the realm of policing is just depressing.

Those are the problems with the idea itself. There are further issues in the way the elections themselves. It costs £5,000 to run as a commissioner, so independents are deterred. The government hasn’t funded a leaflet drop the way it does for parliamentary elections, so again, those with party machinery and funding behind them have a massive advantage. There’s been very little media coverage and precious little information about candidates and their priorities. Then there’s the issue of holding the election in November, independently of other local elections. It means people have to make a special trip to the polls just for this. Most of us just don’t care enough to make the effort.

It should come as no surprise that turnout is expected to be the lowest of any election in Britain. The Electoral Reform Society has estimated turnout will be around 18.5%, but I’d be surprised if it’s that high where I am.

So what to do? I’m tempted to just write ‘this was a dumb idea’ on my ballot and be done with it. I might vote independent, like I usually do. But then I want to be sure that the EDL’s candidate of choice doesn’t get in, so perhaps I’m better off voting for someone who can actually win it. I will have to think about it over lunch.

8 comments

  1. I doubt if many political parties have funded campaigning for police commissioners – my guess is they can’t afford it, and they think council elections are more important. I’ve not seen a leaflet from a political party, has anyone else?

  2. I’ve had a Labopur leaflet, a Conservative one and an EDL/BFP oine, along with a couple of “please don’t vote EDL/BFP” ones. It’s only the thought of Kevin Carroll getting in that made me go and vote against him.

  3. I’ve had a Labour and a Conservative one. The Labour one was all about how the Conservatives are cutting police budgets, something a local commissioner wouldn’t be able to do much about if it’s coming down from central government. I downloaded a pdf with all the candidates and their ideas.

  4. If I were you I’d spoil your ballot paper. it shows interest, rather than apathy, without supporting the atrocious list of candidates. Then you should spend the time between this and the next e;lection, talking to people about issues (not just law and order issues) that effect your life and how they might possibly be dealt with. That way we can reduce the chance of politicians foisting their agendas on us with no discussion in future elections.

  5. I wish we would create a huge hullabaloo about this voting for a police commissioner, since it is plainly taking advantage of our ignorance and lack of democratic positions. I don’t know how to though. We have been walked over.

    1. I think the turnout will speak for itself. The government has already been distancing itself from the policy, and I suspect that the next four years might have to be seen as a trial run.

  6. Hi Jeremy,
    If you don’t mind me being nosy I’m curious as to what you decided (vote or not vote, not really who). I was discussing this with friends the other day – we ruled out the ‘not voting to show you think its a bad idea’ because its indistinguishable from not voting because you can’t be bothered. That left voting or spoiling. Personally, I voted (for what seemed like the least bad option) choosing that over spoiling because I didn’t want the other candidate to get in because of me. I wonder if spoiling only registers if enough people did it. I think the estimate was 18% voted or something – if half of those had spoiled that doesn’t seem to be something you could ignore. But 10% (ie only 1.8% of the population) – not sure.

    I am a post graduate university student – in every uni election there is a RON ‘candidate’ (Re-Open Nominations). I doubt that would ever happen in country wide elections but it would at least allow a dissatisfaction opinion to be legitimately registered.

    Also, I find what you post really interesting – so thanks!
    Rose

  7. When I was a student I nearly ran a ‘vote RON’ campaign after seeing the quality of candidates in one of our elections. I definitely think there should be a protest option on the ballot, and some places do. There’s a ‘none of the above’ option in presidential elections in some US States.

    What did I do in the end? I voted. It’s a five minute walk to the polling station and there was no queue, so it was no hassle. I read the profiles of the candidates again with my wife, and chose a candidate who wanted to encourage restorative justice, which I support. That was the Lib Dem candidate, although party was irrelevant. I would have spoiled my ballot, except that I wanted to be sure that the EDL candidate got as few votes as possible.

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