Trust, turnout and the PCC elections

There's a difference between apathy and lack of interest when it comes to elections.

The elections in the US are over, and so our attention turns to something closer to home, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Elections. In the aftermath of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report and revelations of decades of unchecked child abuse by Jimmy Savile, the opportunity for the public to have a greater say in holding the police to account looks surprisingly unpopular. With turnout forecasts very low, the PCC elections have failed to energise voters. While candidates and the media have been playing a blame game, our research shows a much more complex picture of why the electorate may not go to the polls today.

The candidates, particularly independent candidates, have accused the government, labelling it a ‘botch job’.  Held in the middle of one of the coldest months of the year, without a funded  mailshot and saturated by party-backed candidates and ex-politicians, it’s easy to see why the Electoral Reform Society has pinned responsibility on the government for low turnout.

The candidates themselves have also been blamed for failing to engage potential voters. Our research shows that just under 4 in 10 believe an elected PCC could increase confidence in local police forces. Participants were also shown a list of people and organisations and asked who should play a role in deciding what the police should be doing in their local area. 30% of people mentioned PCCs. These figures suggest a baseline of public support as of yet untapped by candidates, providing turnout forecasts are correct.

While the government and candidates perhaps could have better engaged people with a campaign that allowed for momentum and interest to be built, longer term trends indicate that there may be little appetite for this kind of election and that little can be done to affect turnout.

One reason is rising levels of distrust in politics as shown by our British Social Attitudes study: in 2011, just 1 in 10 said they trusted politicians ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’. Another could be the candidate-centred nature of this election; 35% thought that mayoral elections would give one person too much power. As well as this, 38% think PCCs would bring too much political interference. This concern reflects the public’s preference for independence and expertise over democratic mandate; 55% agree the House of Lords should be made up of independent experts not party politicians.

It’s clear that there is work to do to restore confidence in the police but elections, it seems, don’t guarantee trust. Crucially, about half of the people we asked thought having an elected PCC would have no effect on confidence in the police and 10% thought it would undermine confidence. This indicates a serious level of public scepticism about PCCs and while apathy is often used to explain low turnout at alternative elections, it may be more than a lack of interest that keeps people from the polling booths on Thursday.

Poor turnout will not only affect how the PCCs’ roles develop - after all, if the public don’t want them, the police may not either - but it will also gauge where British democracy is heading. It may well be an indication of a much deeper, more widespread malaise about the way we choose leaders.

We’ll be watching the results and commenting on Twitter all day on Friday, so follow us as we hit turnout milestones.

This post also appeared at NatCen's blog.

Ian Simpson is a mixed methods researcher in the Crime and Justice team at NatCen.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.