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15 November 2012

Trust, turnout and the PCC elections

There's a difference between apathy and lack of interest when it comes to elections.

By Ian Simpson

The elections in the US are over, and so our attention turns to something closer to home, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Elections. In the aftermath of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report and revelations of decades of unchecked child abuse by Jimmy Savile, the opportunity for the public to have a greater say in holding the police to account looks surprisingly unpopular. With turnout forecasts very low, the PCC elections have failed to energise voters. While candidates and the media have been playing a blame game, our research shows a much more complex picture of why the electorate may not go to the polls today.

The candidates, particularly independent candidates, have accused the government, labelling it a ‘botch job’.  Held in the middle of one of the coldest months of the year, without a funded  mailshot and saturated by party-backed candidates and ex-politicians, it’s easy to see why the Electoral Reform Society has pinned responsibility on the government for low turnout.

The candidates themselves have also been blamed for failing to engage potential voters. Our research shows that just under 4 in 10 believe an elected PCC could increase confidence in local police forces. Participants were also shown a list of people and organisations and asked who should play a role in deciding what the police should be doing in their local area. 30% of people mentioned PCCs. These figures suggest a baseline of public support as of yet untapped by candidates, providing turnout forecasts are correct.

While the government and candidates perhaps could have better engaged people with a campaign that allowed for momentum and interest to be built, longer term trends indicate that there may be little appetite for this kind of election and that little can be done to affect turnout.

One reason is rising levels of distrust in politics as shown by our British Social Attitudes study: in 2011, just 1 in 10 said they trusted politicians ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’. Another could be the candidate-centred nature of this election; 35% thought that mayoral elections would give one person too much power. As well as this, 38% think PCCs would bring too much political interference. This concern reflects the public’s preference for independence and expertise over democratic mandate; 55% agree the House of Lords should be made up of independent experts not party politicians.

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It’s clear that there is work to do to restore confidence in the police but elections, it seems, don’t guarantee trust. Crucially, about half of the people we asked thought having an elected PCC would have no effect on confidence in the police and 10% thought it would undermine confidence. This indicates a serious level of public scepticism about PCCs and while apathy is often used to explain low turnout at alternative elections, it may be more than a lack of interest that keeps people from the polling booths on Thursday.

Poor turnout will not only affect how the PCCs’ roles develop – after all, if the public don’t want them, the police may not either – but it will also gauge where British democracy is heading. It may well be an indication of a much deeper, more widespread malaise about the way we choose leaders.

We’ll be watching the results and commenting on Twitter all day on Friday, so follow us as we hit turnout milestones.

This post also appeared at NatCen’s blog.