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

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.