Police and crime commissioner elections: all you need to know

Where they're being held, who's standing and why we're electing commissioners at all.

If, like most people, you still haven't got round to finding out what this Thursday's police and crime commissioner elections are all about, here's a Staggers guide to everything you need to know.

Why are we electing police and crime commissioners (PCCs)?

The coalition argues that the introduction of elected commissioners, who will replace local police authorities, will improve police accountability, free up officers for frontline duties and increase public confidence in the service. Commissioners’ duties will include appointing and dismissing chief constables, agreeing budgets and setting local policing priorities.

The brainchild of the Conservatives, who first proposed elected commissioners in their 2010 manifesto (Steve Hilton was a notable champion), the policy was included in the Coalition Agreement, which pledged to "introduce measures to make the police more accountable through oversight by a directly elected individual". The commissioners will face re-election every four years.

Where are the elections being held?

In 41 of the 43 police areas in England and Wales. The two exceptions are the Metropolitan Police Area, where the Mayor of London acts as the police and crime commissioner, and the City of London Police Area, where the Court of Common Council fills the role.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, policing has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively.

What does Labour think?

Labour voted against the policy in Parliament on the grounds that it would end "a 150 year tradition of keeping politics out of policing" and cost the government tens of millions at a time of police cuts.

The party considered boycotting the elections but eventually announced that it would stand a full slate of candidates, who would campaign against cuts and the privatisation of policing.

Ed Miliband said: "We didn't seek these police commissioner elections. We thought that if you were spending £125m most people would want that money spent on the police, not on new elections.But if these elections do go ahead - if the government insists on them going ahead - we, Labour, are determined to make the best of a bad job."

Labour's policy on commissioners is currently being examined by former Metropolitan police commissioner John Stevens as part of his review of policing for the party.

Who’s standing?

Labour and the Tories are fielding candidates in all 41 force areas, but, in a sign of the party’s current woes, the Liberal Democrats are only standing in 24, the same number as the UK Independence Party. The Green Party is fielding one candidate, the English Democrats five and the British Freedom Party (the political wing of the English Defence League) one. Plaid Cymru is boycotting the elections in Wales on the grounds that the police force "should be run by experienced professionals, not elected members with an agenda to serve their own party’s interests".

The most high-profile candidate is John Prescott, who is standing in Humberside, which includes the seat of Hull East, where he served as MP from 1970-2010. Other notable Labour candidates include former Welsh First Minister Alun Michael, who is running in South Wales, Tony Lloyd, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (whose decision to run triggered a byelection in Manchester Central, to be held on the same day), former Solicitor General Vera Baird, who is Labour’s candidate in Northumbria, and Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, who defeated Peter Kilfoyle in the nomination process.

Tory candidates include former minister Michael Mates, who has been accused by rival candidate Don Jerrard of the Justice and Anti-Corruption Party of misrepresenting his place of residence, Graham Bright, the former MP for Luton South and Craig Mackinlay, the former deputy leader of the UK Independence Party.

Why have some candidates been forced to withdraw?

Due to rules barring anyone convicted of an imprisonable offence from standing, regardless of whether they were jailed or not. Bob Ashford, Labour's candidate in Avon and Somerset, was forced to withdraw after he was revealed to have been convicted of trespassing and being in possession of an offensive weapon when aged 13 in 1966. He was fined £2, 10 shillings for both offences.

Falklands war veteran Simon Weston withdrew from election in south Wales after concerns were raised over a conviction for being a passenger in a stolen car when he was 14.

Lee Barron sought to withdraw as Labour's candidate in Northamptonshire after he was suspended by the party over an unspecified offence committed when he was 19, but was told that he had missed the deadline (24 October) to do so. Should Barron be elected, an acting PCC will be appointed by the Police and Crime Panel until a by-election is held at least 35 days later.

Which voting system will be used?

The Supplementary Vote, a variant of the Alternative Vote, which allows voters to give two preferences. If no candidate wins a majority of first preference votes, all bar the top two candidates are eliminated and a second count is held. The second preference votes of those who supported the eliminated candidates are then allocated among the remaining two and the candidate with the most votes is elected.

The system is currently used to elect all directly-elected mayors in England and Wales, most notably the Mayor of London.

What’s turnout likely to be like?

Terrible. The Electoral Reform Society has estimated that just 18.5 per cent of eligible voters will take part, while a poll by Ipsos MORI suggested a figure of 15 per cent. Either number would be the lowest in British polling history; the ignominious record is currently held by the 1999 EU Parliament election in which just 23 per cent voted.

Critics have warned that the date of the elections (people are disinclined to vote on dark winter nights) and the lack of information provided to the public will hinder participation. Ministers refused to fund a mail-shot for candidates on the grounds that it would add £35m to the £75m bill for the elections, but the helpline set up to offer information to the seven million potential voters without internet access has been described as "useless". A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said it had received "hundreds of calls" about problems with the helpline.

Despite warnings that the commissioners will lack legitimacy if elected by so few people, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has rejected calls for a minimum turnout threshold. She said: "I never set a turnout threshold for any election and I'm not going to do it now. The people elected as police commissioners will have something that the current police authorities do not have, which is a democratic mandate."

Conceding that turnout is likely to be disappointing, David Cameron has argued that "first elections" are always difficult and that turnout is likely to grow as "people realise the elected PCC is an important job."

But after voters rejected the introduction of directly-elected mayors in nine of the ten city-wide referendums held in May (the exception being Bristol, which holds its first mayoral election on Thursday), a derisory turnout would be another blow to the coalition's localism agenda.

Who's going to win?

Based on recent polling data, Labour is likely to win the majority of the 41 contests. In addition to those being held in the north and Wales, a strong performance would see the party win in areas like Bedfordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire, where the Conservatives outpolled them at the last general election. But the unprecedented nature of the elections means the result is hard to predict and the Tories, who regard crime as one of their strongest suits, hope that they could yet exceed expectations.

How much will PCCs be paid?

Commissioners will be paid a salary of between £65,000 and £100,000, depending on the size of their area and their "policing challenges". Those overseeing the West Midlands and Greater Manchester forces will be paid the top rate, while those responsible for the five smallest forces - Cumbria, Dyfed-Powys, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire and Warwickshire - will receive the lowest rate.

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott is standing as Labour's police and crime commissioner candidate in Humberside.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Show Hide image

This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

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

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle