Dismal turnout in the PCC elections must not mean an end to reform

These poorly organised elections should not obscure the need for greater devolution.

I have a confession to make.  I think directly elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) are a positive step forward.

This is not a popular view to hold – particularly following yesterday’s dire turnout, and particularly from someone on the centre-left. However, I hold the view that in a democratic society the police need to be accountable to the public and that the old police authorities were neither visible nor legitimate enough to carry out that role.  

The fact that police authorities had little real legitimacy meant that power actually sat with the chief constables. These unelected professionals could decide which crimes their force ought to focus on, whether or not policing should be carried out by foot or in cars and the conditions under which the police could use firearms. For me, these are all big strategic decisions that should be determined democratically rather than by an unelected professional.  In reality of course as crime rose and police performance fell in the 1990s the Home Secretary started to take control of policing – setting targets and allocating ring fenced funding from the centre.  While this helped improve performance in the early days it soon led to rigidity and undermined responsiveness.  It is far better to have someone locally setting police priorities.

So, in principle, I am in favour of directly electing the people who hold the police to account in their local area.  I would have preferred this to be done either by local government at the level of the Basic Command Unit or by an elected Police Authority, but neither of these options was on the table.  If it’s a choice between the old unelected and invisible police authorities and the PCCs, then I am with the PCCs.  

The problem is that this democratic reform has been implemented in a totally cack-handed fashion. It was absurd to hold these contests to new and unfamiliar posts in November, with cold weather and early nights. They should have been held in May in tandem with the local elections, which would have ensured a more respectable turnout of 30-40 per cent in most places.

But the difficulty of engaging people in these elections does point to wider problems for those engaged in public service reform. Earlier this week, IPPR published a book on "the relational state", which argues for a shift away from public services being managed in a top down fashion from Whitehall and for services to be re-designed from the bottom up, with the users of services playing a more active role.  Should a turnout of below 15 per cent in the PCC elections force us to reconsider these arguments? 

I do not believe so: we want public services that are designed around their users, that are held to account locally and that are flexible enough to innovate and respond to local needs.  While government does need to set some clear national guarantees and minimum standards and to be able to step in when local services fail, in general it is better for priorities to be determined at the local level. But in a society where we are generally time poor and where we all struggle to balance work and family time, we clearly have to be realistic about people’s ability to participate in local civic life.  This means that expecting people to come to lots more meetings to hold their local services to account is a non-starter. 

While people have little interest in governance, they do often want to play a greater role on the issues that directly affect them. We should look at how care users can be given powers to design their own care, how parents can get more involved in their child’s learning and how local residents can come together to tackle anti-social behaviour on their estates.  In other words if we want to inject more participative energy into public services this is more likely to work if it is about meeting people, rather than attending more meetings.

We do nevertheless need to have democratically accountable forms of governance in local services: decisions need to be made in a way that is legitimate and accords to the general will of the local population. So what do we do with a problem like the police and crime commissioners?  We should not abandon the posts in haste.  Let this reform breathe for a while and let’s see what PCCs are able to achieve in their areas.  Despite the low turnout, there are some talented new PCCs now in place who hold out the prospect of doing innovative things to make their communities safer.

In the longer term, the low turnout will be addressed by holding these elections in tandem with the local elections in 2016. But we also need to consider the role of PCCs in the context of a wider debate about localism and how England is governed. While we have had successful devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, most decisions in England are still made in the centre. 

There are a number of avenues we could explore. One would be to see whether in some city regional areas the powers of the PCC could be given to city regional ‘metro mayors’, as advocated by IPPR North.  We would then start to develop powerful new form of locally accountable government in our cities, with powers over transport, economic development and policing, as with the mayor of London.  Another would be whether in some areas smaller police forces, based around current Basic Command Units, might be more appropriate, held to account directly by local government. In other areas PCCs would remain. Given the complexity of how England is governed, there does not have to be the same solution in every area.

Whatever the immediate fallout from these poorly organised elections, we should not let these problems lead to a return to excessive centralism.

John Prescott arrives to hear the results of the Humberside police and crime commissioner elections. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496