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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.