Talking Politics

Police commissioner elections show disdain for democracy

Unloved and neglected, this week's elections to politicise our police have been treated with contempt by the government officials supposed to cherish them.

Despite the lamentable level of awareness about Thursday's police and crime commissioner elections, most people who read the news have by now worked out that something is afoot. But their thoughts are instinctively of confusion rather than engagement. "Police commissioners. If I had any idea who any of the candidates are then I might vote!" one person, a member of a political party, commented on a social media website. A friend replied: "The only info we've had through the door is from Ukip but really don't want that to determine my vote!" The comments only underline what a mess the government has made of these elections.

Appropriately for November, the selection of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales is going to be a damp squib. Even if turnout exceeds expectations and reaches 25%, that will still be shockingly low by any reasonable standard of what contributes meaningful engagement in a functioning democracy. But what did ministers expect? The job is new. The constituencies are new. The time of year is new. The voting system is new. So it's hardly surprising that, neglected by ministers, the public don't have a clue what's going on.

Far-sighted believers in these reforms will be asking which of these problems persist in the second, third and fourth elections. The weaknesses listed above will diminish, but only slowly. Too slowly to make a real impact. Novelty tempering unfamiliarity will be replaced by the usual pallid grey indifference that pervades all elected politics in Britain. Voters will prefer to watch their politicians on reality TV shows eating the genitals of exotic creatures instead of going out to vote in the dark and the rain.

These failings could have been mitigated had the government mounted a determined public information campaign. Instead their half-hearted attempts have been deeply disappointing - and possibly worse than doing nothing at all.

First came the decision to abandon the usual mailout standard for candidates standing in most elections in this country. These were replaced by a thoroughly inadequate website, a far less effective way of publicising the options available to voters, and one full of problems for those not connected to the internet. Ministers justified the move on the grounds of cost; an understandable reason given the state of the Home Office's budget, but an inexcusable one in the context of deciding to go ahead with the elections at all. It would have been better to drop the changes completely.

For by deciding to press on, the government has committed a cardinal sin against democracy: it has effectively prevented some of the best-qualified candidates from standing. Some would-be commissioners were deterred by the rules on the qualifications needed to stand. Others were put off by the £5,000 deposit required. The absence of the mailout has had the worst impact, though. Together these have turned this into a partisan contest, squeezing independent candidates with relevant experience out. In place of experienced former chief constables, we find ourselves confronted with far too many former MPs. Those in Westminster might not be able to comprehend this, but professional politicians are not what the public want in this role.

Nor has the government been sticking by the basic rules of engagement. To try to raise public awareness of the elections the Home Office decided to go ahead with a major publicity push, covering radio, TV and online advertising. This would have been a good thing, had the independent Electoral Commission not raised concerns about it. They claimed that the full weight of government backing might lend itself to support candidates supporting the governing parties. The Home Office, unsurprisingly, disagreed. Were they right to do so? Absolutely not.

Some people are so fed up with the whole idea that they are considering spoiling their vote. The process has been compromised, but the biggest reason to oppose these reforms is that they guarantee the politicisation of the police. In the summer of 2008 the new mayor of London, one Boris Johnson, sacked the Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Ian Blair, on the general grounds that Blair was a New Labour man at heart. It was a harbinger of what is to come: meddling from a partisan individual in the setting of the police budget and the disbursing of crime prevention funds, pushing the chief constable to achieve an annual policing plan.

When placed in the context of commissioner elections, these are fundamentally political activities. It doesn't matter that the commissioner will have to take an oath of impartiality upon assuming office. Nor will the new police and crime panels make a real difference. These are fig leaves covering up the nakedness of the politicians about to take direct control over police forces. Eventually, the pursuit of strategic goals will lead some commissioners to believe they know best when it comes to operational decisions. The process begins with voting this week.

A flawed set of reforms was bad enough. That the elections, the democratic principle at the heart of the changes, have been treated with such disdain is far more worrying. It suggests the actual voting is of limited importance; the takeover by the party machinery is what matters to ministers. That's all to the good if you're a died-in-the-wool activist. But it's not what the general public want.

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