Labour is unlikely to scrap PCCs, so here's how it can reform them

Police and Crime Commissioners should become 'ministers for the local criminal justice system' with the political power to set the agenda.

Despite all the talk about a lack of policy detail, there is one area where Labour will certainly be doing some pretty hard thinking over the next few months. The party’s Policing Review, led by former Met Commissioner Lord Stevens, might be long delayed but is still expected to be published in the autumn and may provide some much-needed thinking on crime and justice issues.

Taking advantage of front-line police dissatisfaction at the government’s policing agenda, the review is likely to contain various pro-police measures on issues like perks and pay, and is also likely to include promises to reverse certain elements of Theresa May’s wide-ranging reforms.

It is rumoured that it will once again float the idea of mandatory police force mergers and a move towards regional police forces – an idea that is popular with some senior police leaders, but was comprehensively rejected by just about everybody else back in 2006. But as well as looking at structural changes and crowd-pleasing measures, the review will also need to address the party’s position on Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), who will mark their one year anniversary in November.

On the face of it, PCCs have made an inauspicious start. Poor turnout at last year’s elections, some early high-profile blunders and a media fixation on expenses and personnel have all helped to create a negative impression. But the reality on the ground will take longer to evaluate and there is emerging evidence that PCCs are bringing real clarity of leadership and proving far more effective than Police Authorities ever were at holding forces to account and improving their crime-fighting performance. Despite this, Labour could decide to make a premature call and scrap PCCs before they’ve really had a chance to get started.

If Labour was to decide to change the model of police governance again, emergency legislation would need to be passed by a new government upon taking office in order to cancel the next set of PCC elections in May 2016. Scrapping PCCs would not only need to be the first priority for Ed Miliband if he makes it into 10 Downing Street, it would also extinguish the progress made by a number of influential former Labour ministers who are thriving as PCCs of large police forces in the north and the midlands. For both of these reasons, the smart money is on PCCs remaining in place and being given the time to demonstrate their significant potential.

The report we have published today is an attempt to look to the future of PCCs, rather than continue to quibble about their introduction. In it, we outline a vision for a deliberate and steady decentralisation of the criminal justice system, with PCCs the recipients of a range of new responsibilities and powers, implemented in a way designed to command the confidence of central government departments.

Our contention is that while PCCs have a valuable suite of powers in the policing realm, they do not yet have the right tools for effecting change in the wider criminal justice system. We set out a series of steps which would see PCCs increasingly assume a role similar to that of a 'minister for the local criminal justice system' – with the political power to set the agenda, hold agencies within his/her purview to account for delivery of that agenda and drive forward reforms to ensure a more efficient and effective system at the local level.

The aim should be to create a system where, instead of local criminal justice leaders looking upwards and inwards to Whitehall for direction and validation, they increasingly look outwards to each other and downwards to the citizens they serve.

The process of decentralisation we envisage starts with giving PCCs the power to influence the people, agendas, performance and coordination of the criminal justice system at both a national and local level. Once they are given the tools to allow them to work effectively within the wider ecosystem and have successfully got to grips with their new powers, the strategy would see them becoming more financially responsible for the wider system – both for holding and commissioning with specific criminal justice budgets, and for the levels of demand created within their local areas.

As PCCs develop, whichever party is in government might also begin to ask questions about their longer-term future. These reforms have created a new set of local politicians with considerable powers (over the police, at least) – representing an entirely new infrastructure for local democracy. In this new report, we argue that policymakers should build on this by deliberately facilitating the expansion of PCCs’ powers and remit in the justice space. But it is not impossible that future governments might decide to go even further. For example, in the wake of the rejection of City Mayors in last year’s referenda, where attempts were made to introduce powerful Mayors in a 'big bang' fashion, it may make sense for PCCs to be reformed more fundamentally over time – gradually accruing powers over other areas of public policy.

The election of Police and Crime Commissioners was a once in a generation opportunity to reform policing and criminal justice, and reverse decades of ineffective policies. And there are now three choices facing policymakers: reverse, stand still or go forward. Going forward, by accelerating the expansion of PCCs’ powers and responsibilities, will give these new figures every chance of being successful in their jobs, maximising reductions in crime and meeting the significant expectations around their role. And that’s the best way of ensuring that the narrative.

Max Chambers is head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange

Labour will need to address the party’s position on Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), who will mark their one year anniversary in November. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.