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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.