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.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.