We can now elect police officers: but will anyone bother?

Let’s not waste this opportunity.

It is now less than a month until the first police and crime commissioners are elected across the country. The policing minister Damien Green has described this as “the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetime”, and yet there is a real danger that hardly anybody, especially young people like me, will turn out to vote. Indeed, yesterday saw former Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Ian Blair urge us to boycott the election, telling Sky News “I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this”.

Sir Ian is wrong: the Home Secretary has repeatedly stated that the elections will be legitimate whatever the turnout. The reforms are going ahead. However, there is a real danger that he will get at least part of his wish. The Electoral Reform Society recently estimated that only 18.5 per cent of the electorate will brave the November chill and head to the polls. Surveys suggest that 82 per cent don’t know who their candidates are, and the figures are probably even higher for us traditionally apathetic young people. An informal poll of friends in my home constituency of Essex drew nothing but blank expressions, and polite but uninterested questions as to what a ‘police and crime commissioner’ actually was.

This is a concern, because we are precisely the age group that should be paying the most attention to the election of PCCs. As research by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance shows, young people (16-24) are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the police, and are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system – we make up 10 per cent of the population but one-third of those commencing a community sentence, one-third on the probation caseload and almost one-third of those sentenced to prison each year. We are also the most likely age group to be a victim of crime; 31.8 per cent of young people were victims of a crime in 2011.

The decisions PCCs will make will therefore have a disproportionate impact on us. The introduction of PCCs, however, also provides us with a huge opportunity to have our voices heard directly. PCCs have a duty to engage with the whole community, and hold the local chief constable to account on their behalf. They can set strategic priorities, and shine a light on poor practice in policing locally. This election is a chance to raise those issues around policing and crime that matter most to young people.

Despite the apathy about PCC elections, many young people have strong feelings towards the police, whether this is to do with the policing of protests or feeling marginalized and bullied by the police presence in their community. Young people involved in the riots, interviewed as part of the Guardian and LSE report, commonly cited anger at the police as a cause of their behaviour.  

Stop and search is one such issue highlighted in the riots report. These powers were used more than a million times by police in 2009/10, with a crime detection rate of just 9 per cent. We are more likely than any other age group to be stopped, while it is well known that black and ethnic minority groups in particular are disproportionately stopped. Organizations such as StopWatch are already lobbying candidates on these issues, and young people should take this opportunity, and use their vote, to push for a change in the way we are policed.

Other issues that are likely to have a disproportionate effect on young people are already being discussed. Candidates are issuing their manifestos and taking to social media to share their thoughts on issues such as zero-tolerance policing, anti-social behaviour and the policing of town centres at night. Candidates are already talking about us, even if we are largely not listening yet. Last year’s riots, as well as pervading negative perceptions of young people as "yobs" and "hoodies", make us a hot topic for some PCCs, particularly those who want to sound "tough on crime".

A boycott will not change these perceptions. It is vital that we do not let this national conversation on policing and crime become yet another case of politicians talking about us, but not with us. Young people need to grasp this opportunity to engage, register and vote, and get involved – move the debate beyond its current stale focus on turnout and implementation and have a say in how we are policed. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

The old days are over: a policeman in 1913. Photograph: Getty Images

Shane Britton is the research and policy officer of youth charity Revolving Doors.

Photo: Getty
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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.