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

John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.