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Ten reasons why police commissioner elections leave us cold

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

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

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.