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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.