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Why Labour has it wrong on elected police

A manifesto for progressive police and crime commissioners

A manifesto for progressive police and crime commissioners

The issue of Elected Police and Crime Commissioners has returned to the political boil. The Conservatives have made concessions to the Liberal Democrats and deferred elections till November 2012. But David Cameron remains resolutely committed to this policy. In response, the Labour Party has renewed its opposition. Last week Ed Miliband described Commissioners as the 'wrong policy for the wrong time'. In Monday's Guardian Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Copper claimed Commissioners will undermine police impartiality and cost the equivalent of 3,000 police constables. She also raised the spectre of low turnouts and the election of 'extremist' candidates. What Yvette Cooper forgets is that Labour can prevent this from happening - but only if it starts to think more ambitiously about the political opportunity that Commissioners present.

Police and Crime Commissioners will be powerful figures. They will be responsible for multi-million pound police budgets and for setting police priorities. The Labour Party - along with Liberal Democrat peers, Liberty and most police chiefs - think this is a dangerous reform. They have raised justifiable concerns. But opposition has been defensive and unimaginative. Critics have thrown in their lot with an exhausted status quo and failed to grasp that, for all their limitations as a model of accountability, Commissioners might be a means of democratising the police service - something that has long been, and should remain, a progressive cause.

This is a flagship Conservative policy. But it is a piece of constitutional reform, and like other constitutional reforms (devolution, elected mayors) the success or failure of this policy lies beyond the control of its - in this case Conservative - authors. In fact, the impact of Commissioners on the ground is largely going to depend on the Labour Party and other forces of the centre-left.

A real opportunity exists for the centre-left to develop and implement across large swathes of the country a progressive policy on crime, policing and disorder - and to make Police Commissioners a showcase for a better politics of crime and policing. Done well, this reform could do a great deal to build public trust in politics and might even become a much needed instance of the 'new politics' that the Coalition is otherwise failing to deliver. So how can the centre-left shape and begin to 'own' this reform? What will a 'manifesto' for progressive Police and Crime Commissioners look like?

We think it should look something like this:

Pledge to be responsible. Progressive Commissioners will not trample all over chief officers' operational responsibility, sack chiefs willy-nilly, make silly promises they cannot keep, or resort to over-blown anti-crime rhetoric.

Run an office for public engagement that listens to the experiences and concerns of ordinary people. Progressive Commissioners will not simply stand for election and implement false, inflated promises. They will ensure that public concerns are reflected in policing priorities - while remaining vigilant champions of the civil liberties of local minorities. They should devolve some of their budget to local level and allow it to be decided directly by the public, through participatory budgeting.

Protect local neighbourhood policing in the face of budget cuts. They should protect the numbers of constables and PCSOs in neighbourhood police teams and re-deploy back office staff to increase the number of officers out on the beat. They should develop neighbourhood policing further by enhancing its public engagement and problem-solving dimensions which are as yet under-developed.

Improve police responsiveness and citizen-focus. Progressive Commissioners should guarantee some clear minimum response times that the public should expect when they call 999 or non emergency numbers.

Hard-wire social justice into the work of the police. We know that people in the poorest areas are most likely to be victims of crime and are most likely to be afraid of crime. While neighbourhood policing teams should be maintained in all areas, greater resource should be deployed into those areas with the highest needs.

Develop holistic crime reduction. Much of what impacts upon crime in localities lies beyond the control of any Police Commissioner. This means working closely with the courts and probation to foster justice reinvestment and reduce re-offending. It means developing effective triage services in police stations so that those with mental health problems or addictions can be referred to appropriate services. But it also means paying close attention to the impact of early years education, family support and employment on levels of crime.

Be open to evidence about what works. A lot is now known about what policing strategies can be effective in reducing crime - and what is a waste of public money. Progressive Commissioners will be open to this evidence and will take proper heed of it making decisions. They will use their office to ensure that it forms part of local debate about policing. They should not be afraid to pilot innovative approaches to crime reduction and learn from mistakes.

We think these ideas offer the basis for a progressive and popular 'offer' to electors next year. For Labour in particular they provide a platform from which the party can govern - and not merely oppose - in the next four years, and thereby take a record of demonstrable success in a key public service to voters in 2015. This is a moment which should be seized.

Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford
Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR