We should be glad the PCC elections are so dull

Which of the nebulous promises of less crime and more policemen enthuses you to turn up to vote?

As the results of the first elections to the position of police and crime commissioner come in, the over-riding impression is that nobody gives a shit.

Turnout in Wiltshire, the first of the areas to declare, was just 15.7 per cent – lower than any national election since 1918, and lower than any individual constituency result in a general election since 1945. Meanwhile, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, of the independent research organisation Democratic Audit, reports that at least three polling stations had exactly zero voters, which sounds like it could be a first.

But perhaps we ought to be thankful that the public is showing so much apathy.

A brief glance at the election statements of candidates shows how hard it is to stand out. One explicitly promises to "reduce crime by 20%"; another vaguely claims he will "put victims at the heart of the criminal justice process". Some didn't even write forward-looking statements at all, instead focusing entirely on their past: "17 years of local authority experience… 24 years of managing a successful business… Police Neighbourhood Tasking group chair".

There is nothing stopping people running entirely on claims that "I have done a good job in the past, so I will probably do a good job in the future" – although it does raise the question of why we bothered to switch from job interviews, which are normally predicated on that sort of claim anyway – but the problem is, it leaves the position vulnerable to candidates running on more interesting platforms.

The entire reasoning behind PCC elections is basically that there are low-hanging fruit of innovative policing techniques which the "career coppers" haven't been able to spot because they're too disconnected from the real world. The problem is that if that turns out not to be true – if policing is, broadly, done as well as it can be – then the low-hanging fruit turns out to be rotten.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. He was first elected in November 1992, and has held the post for 21 years straight. In that time, Arpaio has hit the press for:

To be clear, many of these problems are as much to do with America and its third-world jail system as they are to do with Joe Arpaio and the process of electing police chiefs. But to suggest that elections will introduce "accountability" into the process, when someone like Arpaio has been re-elected five times, is nothing more than wishful thinking.

The best we can hope for with PCC elections is a continuation of dull, technocratic manifestos leading to minuscule turnout along party lines – because the methods people might use to really stoke up the electorate don't bear thinking about.

An inmate at Maricopa County Jail. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.