Analysing PCCs at the two-year mark. Photo: Getty
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After two years of Police and Crime Commissioners, we must assess their democratic value

As we hit the two-year mark of the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners, it’s time to look forward and assess what needs to be done to improve democratic governance in policing.

“One year on: warts and all”: this was how the Home Secretary, Theresa May, chose to entitle her speech on the first anniversary of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Clearly, even she had to admit that things weren’t going as well as she hoped. As we hit the two-year mark, problems remain about her flagship reform and so it’s time to look forward to the future, to assess what needs to be done to improve democratic governance in policing.  

Over the past two years we have seen PCCs, from across the political spectrum, try to make the most of their position. Indeed, we have borne witness to many innovative projects led by them. Northumbria’s Vera Baird has led impressive action in order to combat domestic violence, while in Surrey, Kevin Hurley is ensuring collaboration between blue light emergency services. There is a real focus on mental health in Greater Manchester, where Tony Lloyd is pushing the agenda. However, despite these and many more examples of good work, the system is flawed.

The independent Stevens Commission on policing, released a year ago, called the creation of PCCs a "failed experiment". Reflecting on the first year of PCCs Stevens made it clear that the problems with the system were not merely "teething troubles" but that the model is systematically flawed and "should be discontinued". We agree with his conclusions for three reasons. First, the rule of law. The police must be accountable to the public through elected representatives but day-to-day operational independence of the police should never be compromised.

Second, democratic legitimacy. The initial election in November 2012 was run without any major publicity push, resulting in a desultory turnout of just under 15 per cent, which even May admitted was "disappointing". But worse still, when the Home Office provided information leaflets to each home in the West Midlands for this August’s by-election, turnout fell, only managing to crack the 10 per cent mark. The election cost almost £4m. Despite claims of democratic empowerment, the PCC system has not fulfilled its main objective, which May claimed would be bringing a "strong democratic mandate" to policing. There is nothing "strong" about 15 per cent.

Third, there have been too many scandals ranging from cronyism, in appointments to a system that did not allow for Shaun Wright to be recalled in Rotherham in spite of calls from the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Wright eventually stood down when it was made clear that his position was untenable.

Looking to the future, with police reeling from some of the most severe cuts to public spending threatening the loss of a staggering 68,000 officers and staff, it makes it all the more difficult to justify spending millions on the maintenance of the office and the cost of the elections. The next set of elections alone will cost at least £50m. 

Even the Chancellor recently sought to overrule the Home Secretary by announcing that he intends to abolish the position of PCC in Greater Manchester, instead rolling the responsibilities into a Mayoral position. Even behind the closed doors of Cabinet, we now know that there is little support for May’s misguided policy.

Let me be clear, however, our intention is not driven by criticism that I level at any individual PCC. The biggest problem with PCCs is the premise on which they are based. Of course, the police must be held to account.  However, creating a position at considerable expense which has proved to be problematic and which the public never called for has led to a lacklustre response.

Instead, Labour will devolve police accountability right down to the neighbourhood level. Through this, elected councillors and neighbourhood commanders will be accountable to the public, with new statutory underpinning for public meetings, consulting on local plans and even deciding who the local police unit commander should be.

At force level, budget setting and holding the Chief Constable to account will be carried out by the Police Governing Body. The Body will comprise of leaders in local government across that police force area, as well as lay members and third sector representatives. Victims, the probation service, the criminal justice system, the health service should all have their voice heard on the board.  Labour is currently consulting on other aspects of our proposals including the potential of the appointment by the Body of a strong Chair, similar to chairs of NHS trusts.

The principle of democracy and democratic accountability is paramount. As Lord Stevens said, “there must be no retreat from the idea of giving people a voice in how they are policed.” And there must be no return to old style Police Authorities. However, it is clear that May’s flagship reform is floundering. These last two years have been two years too many; the Government has wasted time and money pursuing a flawed policy. What we now need is fundamental reform, which is exactly what Labour is proposing. Accountability rooted in the new democratic settlement of devolution, with locally elected representatives holding the police to account.

Jack Dromey MP is the shadow minister for policing 

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses