Ten reasons why police commissioner elections leave us cold

The elections offer little more than an expensive way of leaving us all more disillusioned.

Duggan. Tomlinson. Hillsborough. Leveson. Police charged with upholding the law have repeatedly broken it. Few would deny that our forces need to radically change to win back public trust. So why, when police corruption is such a hot topic, do police commissioner elections leave us so cold? Sadly, I can think of at least ten reasons.

Many of the problems stem from the constituencies being far too big (1). Individual commissioners will be expected to serve over a million people across spurious boundaries that people don’t emotionally identify with. Thames Valley for example crosses 21 parliamentary seats. It’s nuts to think that you can meaningfully reach all of these people and connect with their diverse concerns. 

Partly because the constituencies are so big, they’ve become dominated by party politics (2). Independent candidates like Gillian Radcliffe and Khan Juna have pulled out because they don’t have the resources to campaign across such huge areas or put up the £5,000 deposit to run. So elections that were supposed to bring in new blood are reinforcing the old guard. 

Once one party fields a candidate, others feel obliged to respond. Labour’s candidate for Hampshire, the well experienced Jacqui Rayment, was initially opposed to police commissioners, but is now fighting night and day to win because she and her excellent team believe people deserve a better choice than the Tory Michael Mates.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that good independent candidates – largely those with experience - have been ruled out by overly strict eligibility criteria (3). Take the Falklands war hero Simon Weston. At 14-years-old he was fined for riding in a car he didn’t know was stolen, and that tiny glitch has barred him from running. Bob Ashford, well experienced in the youth justice system, was ruled out for a minor conviction when he was thirteen in 1966.

In the rare case where independent candidates can afford to stand, you have to question where they are getting the money and why (4). An excellent investigation by Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph exposed how secret lobby funding from the US funded Mervyn Barrett, largely because he supported outsourcing police budgets to private companies. People were suspicious when Barrett had a chauffeured Mercedes and free campaign DVDS, but a legal loophole meant he didn’t need to declare his funding sources until after election. Apparently more candidates are being financed in this way, but we don’t know how many.

Then there’s the more conceptual problem (5). Police commissioners are supposed to be able to set strategic priorities for the 41 police areas, agree budgets and hire and fire chief constables. But as Jon Harvey points out, we don’t know how they will interact with chief constables who maintain operational control. Will commissioners be quiet watchdogs overseeing largely autonomous officers, or attack dogs that force huge decisions on them like privatisation?

In a year when police integrity has dominated the headlines, we should be using these elections to have a major debate about the culture of our forces. We need to talk about how officers win trust rather than cope with suspicion and hostility, particularly amongst young people. We need to talk about how we can prevent as well as punish. But apart from a small minority like Jane Basham in Suffolk, these elections are failing to address these issues (6). Most debates are being overshadowed by cuts.

Then there’s the issue of populism (7). Charities and campaigners have raised concerns that people will vote on the issues they are most likely to see or get passionate about, rather than the crimes that are most dangerous or damaging. Domestic violence, trafficking, murder and international criminal gangs are notoriously unseen and underground. Given the elections have failed to produce an engaged or informative debate, we could vote for priorities that make us feel better, but leave us objectively less safe.

And let’s not forget that we are spending a huge amount of money on this (8). Police commissioners are being paid up to £100,000 a year. That’s a lot more than MPs. Creating a new class of politicians at a time of austerity is not going to fly well with the electorate. Yet even these figures don’t guarantee they’ll have the resources they need. Will commissioners have an allowance for office staff for example, or will they serve as their own very expensive secretaries? It doesn’t feel thought through.

Like the NHS reforms, it’s obvious this project has not been designed with people of experience (9). Officers themselves do not seem in favour of the new position, and the former heard of Scotland Yard Sir Ian Blair recently called on people to boycott the elections. This government needs to learn that if reform is going to work, it must be owned by the people who work with the consequences day in day out. Without them it’s just an academic exercise.

All of these problems are fuelling the last and final problem: turnout (10). At the moment, the Electoral Reform Society predicts just 18.5 per cent. If that happens, the legitimacy of the positions will be brought into question. As Andrew Neil deftly pointed out this Sunday, Conservative ministers have argued that unions should have a threshold turnout to legitimately vote on a strike. Why should commissioners be any different?

I appreciate all of this can sound rather negative. It’s true that if the left wants to criticise, it should come up with a positive reform agenda of it’s own, because we all know the present system isn’t working. But not having an alternative doesn’t mean this reform is right. In their present state, police commissioners offer little more than an expensive way of leaving us all more disillusioned.

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott is standing as the Labour candidate for Humberside Police and Crime Commissioner.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.