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.