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 Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation