How to keep politics out of policing

Just how independent are the non-party-affiliated candidates for the new Police and Crime Commissioner positions?

The Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections are almost upon us. On 15 November 2012, we go to the polls, in what will likely be an extremely disappointing turnout, to elect the future leaders of the criminal justice system in our local areas. Elections are taking place in 41 separate areas, with a mix of party-affiliated and independent candidates vying for our votes. The question is – how “independent” are these independents?

Much has been made recently about the fairness of the PCC elections. Independent candidates, whilst trying to keep up with their party counterparts, are still required to find a deposit of £5,000 just to get on the ballot paper – ten times the amount needed to stand in Parliamentary General Elections – and that’s before the campaigning starts. Additionally, in ordinary elections, candidates are only allowed to spend around £12,000 on their campaigns. For the PCC elections, the figure is closer to £100,000. So the question being posed in the press is: do party candidates have an unfair advantage?

Well, yes and no.

They do have access to party funds, making it easier to enter the race to begin with, and to campaign on a grand scale. However, a recent survey commissioned by YouGov found that 61 per cent of people were against the idea of party candidates being elected into PCC positions. When taking account of age, 74 per cent of the "over 60s" category (the group most likely to act upon their voting intentions) stated that PCCs should not represent a political party. Of everyone sampled, only 11 per cent thought it was acceptable for candidates to have party allegiances.

This sentiment has been a key argument in many independent manifestos. “Free from political pressure” seems to be the mantra of the day. However, upon delving into the manifestos of some independent PCC candidates, proposed policies seem to be dripping with popular punitiveness – the policies of the extreme right of Conservative thinking. For this reason, I suggest that, although candidates may be independent from party interference, they are certainly not independent from political ideology.

Take, for example, the following statements:

“I am advocating a hardline approach. Hardcore thugs must go to jail, not be let off as many are at present. Letting people off just makes things worse and in the end creates more problems.”

“First you may be reprimanded (several times), given final warnings and then formally depending upon age cautioned and then eventually end up in court. Court sanctions can be modest and even then often not complied with. The learned behaviour for this small group of individuals is one of petty crime pays, because the risk of real sanctions is frankly negligible. The sanctions available to the police and others who work hard in the criminal justice system are just not there. Outrageously prison sentencing policy is driven by the number of places available, not protecting us.”

Both of these statements refer to antisocial behaviour in local areas. The first was made by a Conservative MP – the newly-appointed justice secretary, Chris Grayling. The second is from a collection of soundbites from the website of Lincolnshire’s “only truly independent” candidate for the PCC role, David Bowles. These statements seem to portray the same thing, and it should not be forgotten that Chris Grayling was bought in to replace former justice secretary Ken Clarke – predominantly for ideological reasons – to appease the punitive Conservative right. It is evident, just from these short quotes, that, although some Independent candidates do not have party allegiances to contend with, the remnants of ideological thinking are absolutely on show in some of the Independent manifestos. 

So what would a truly independent manifesto look like?

For me, it would draw on evidence from the fields of criminology, and desistance-based research. Naturally, the topic that is foremost in people’s minds – antisocial behaviour – would take centre stage, as it has done in the majority of PCC candidates’ campaigns. Research shows that, after being reprimanded a small number of times, young people in particular will cease their antisocial actions. For this reason, an evidence-based manifesto would encourage community payback initiatives, incorporating the principles of restorative justice, as opposed to a more punitive approach, such as imprisonment, as advocated by the likes of Grayling and Bowles. 

To take this further, non-criminal arrangements, such as informal warnings from police officers, will often be enough to deter young people from engaging in antisocial behaviour. A scheme such as this non-criminal approach would also result in the young person not obtaining a criminal record, meaning that the negative impact of having a record – such as poorer long-term employment prospects – can be avoided, enhancing the likelihood of long-term desistance from crime.

Police visibility is also a hot topic. However, Officer numbers need to be balanced with the requirement set by central Government to make financial cutbacks. One way of doing this could be to recruit increased numbers of volunteers – Special Constables who, unlike expensive Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), have the same powers of arrest as regular Officers. This increases local visibility levels, and harnesses volunteers’ enthusiasm and knowledge of their local areas, whilst keeping costs down.

It should be borne in mind that, eventually, the PCC role is likely to incorporate all aspects of local criminal justice, including the Courts, Probation, and some Prisons. With this in mind, a complete manifesto would address the challenges faced by these institutions, as well as the police. For example, PCC candidates should outline their support for sentencing policy that keeps many low-level offenders out of prison, and encourages community sentences that provide opportunities for community payback, as well as providing the offender with a chance to improve their employment prospects and education level.

To conclude, if we really want to keep politics out of policing, and develop an effective and efficient criminal justice system, we should leave ideological thinking at the polling station door, and vote for evidence-based policies. Only then can a candidate call themselves “truly independent”.

A full list of candidates for Lincolnshire, and the rest of the country, along with further information about PCCs and the election, can be viewed at www.policeelections.com.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Craig is a forensic psychology blogger interested in evidence-based criminal justice and desistance from crime. He tweets as @CraigHarper19.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.