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

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.