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.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.