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

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.