Opinion: The Liberal Democrats should contest Police Commissioner elections

Ask many people what they think of the Lib Dems’ approach to law and order, and you’ll be told – erroneously – that we’re a soft touch. Our approach, traditionally evidence-based and less punitive than the populist authoritarian policies of Labour and the Tories, takes longer to explain. When we fail to do so, we risk being seen as the party that panders to criminals.

Of course, that isn’t the case. We believe in policy that actually works to reduce crime and recidivism, using all possible means to rehabilitate those who resort to illegality, while reiterating the importance of the rule of law and appropriate sentencing. Our long-held commitment to community justice panels and restorative justice, our attempts to preserve access to justice despite cuts to legal aid, and our good work in amending the (initially very Tory indeed) Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act all testify that we continue to be the standard bearers for a liberal justice system in government.

But the baffling statement by the Federal Executive this week, on Police Commissioner elections, flies in the face of our commitment to that system. I completely understand that during a challenging financial time for the party, no central funds can be spared to help Lib Dem candidates in these elections. I don’t honestly think anyone was expecting to hear otherwise.

A West Midlands police station. Photo credit: ell brown on FlickrIt’s the tone of the FE’s statement that is worrying. It was possible to send out something that reflected the financial considerations and the desire for the subject not to become too much of a ‘political football’, yet still actively encourage Lib Dem members to stand. I cannot accept that by standing under the party name, they would be making the situation any more politicised than it already is.

Instead, the tone was discouraging, implying that Liberal Democrats would want to support independent candidates. Given that one of the major concerns throughout the Bill’s passage was that this would be an opportunity for ‘bang ‘em up’ right-wingers to hijack the debate, the likelihood that liberal-minded independents will magically appear is, it would seem, negligible. But more than that, surely we believe that operational policing is better served by an approach in line with our philosophical values. And surely the best way of achieving such policing is to put in liberal candidates who have a chance of winning.

What will be achieved if Lib Dems don’t stand? The best possible outcome is that no one will notice. We cannot seriously expect a public vote of thanks for a high-minded decision not to participate. More likely is that people will assume we’re just not that interested in one of the most important issues affecting local communities.

This can’t be allowed to happen. We must field candidates in these elections. After all, we’re the Liberal Democrats, not the Liberal Loiterers.

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19 Comments

  • Tom

    You are starting to persuade on this and I wold agreed that the tone was all wrong (perhaps it was a cunning ploy by the FE that if they sounded discouraging, people would respond by trying to organise campaigns to prove them wrong….).

    However, it might be useful to know exactly what regions are going to covered and what the role of these individuals is….Given that operational policing is supposed to be a matter for the police and most criminal policy is set nationally, what can they actually do other than check up on what the police are doing (and for that, I would rather see someone who knows policing inside out whether or not they are a paid up Lib Dem). Ironically, we do, of course, have one high-profile ex-policeman who would bring a lot to the role but he seems otherwise engaged…

    From my perspective, I think the best way of phrasing it would have been to expect us to put up candidates but also make it clear that an appropriate independent could be supported as an alternative. At the moment, I think the fear that many people have is that there will not be anyone (whether Lib Dem or independent) to put the case for evidence-based, liberal but effective policing. That indeed, would be a huge shame.

  • Adam Corlett 31st Oct '11 - 11:17am

    I do think we need to do more to aggressively promote “what works best, not what sounds toughest” when it comes to criminal justice. But does that not apply mostly to sentencing which – correct me if I’m wrong – police commissioners will have no influence over? Other than using the evidence to argue against prioritising “more police officers on the street” (I’m sure that’ll be popular!), are these elections really any use in shaping the law and order debate?

  • Chris Nelson 31st Oct '11 - 12:21pm

    I absolutely couldn’t agree more with the author of this article.

    The idea that by not standing a candidate will make these elections “non-political” is a nave attempt to shut the stable door after the party-political horse has bolted. It’s already clear that the Tories have already lined up some party-political candidates including Colonel Tim Collins in Kent, and Labour probably won’t be far behind. Frankly, if we don’t have a horse in the race – and get that horse chosen early – we will become an irrelevance.

    There is a huge raft of areas where Liberal Democrats can make a unique and valuable contribution to tackling crime – by picking solutions that WORK, not just solutions that look good on the front page of The Sun or the Daily Mail. Fighting for liberal solutions on crime and fighting against knee-jerk conservatism is part of the irreducible core that defines what it is to be a Liberal. Throwing in the towel at this early stage would be unforgivable.

  • Richard Marbrow 31st Oct '11 - 12:28pm

    I strongly agree with the author of the piece that we should be standing candidates.

    Federal Executive seem to have joined the ranks of those who believe that political parties are “a bad thing”, a corrosive attititude that is damaging our democracy.

  • Joseph Donnelly 31st Oct '11 - 3:28pm

    If we do stand candidates, personally I’m unsure whether we should or not, then I would hope we really go hard core liberal in our campaigns. We make clear that we do indeed have a soft stance towards drugs, favour rehabilitation and lighter sentences. The worst case scenario would be standing and attempting to be Labour/Tory lite

  • Stuart Mitchell 31st Oct '11 - 6:16pm

    Given that the Lib Dems have blown £25m of public money delaying the elections in order to give their candidates a better chance of winning, surely the very least they could do is actually put some candidates up.

    As an opponent of this whole madcap scheme, I’m starting to think that it might be a good idea to vote for the most extremist, divisive, and downright unsavoury candidate who stands in my area, however repellent they may be to me, purely so as to discredit the process as much as possible in the hope that the first elections will be the last.

    If centrist parties are going to sit it out and leave the field wide open for extremists, it looks like I won’t have any other choice.

  • Alisdair Calder McGregor 1st Nov '11 - 7:37am

    With a £5000 deposit, how many actual independents do we expect to see running?

  • Tactically this has been handled in a shockingly naive manner – even if the party does field a candidate now the first thing the opposition will do is point out that it’s split on whether or not they should be standing anyway – what a gift!

    If worrying about losing deposits is the reasoning behind this then the rightful accusation will be that the party hasn’t got the guts to take its policies to the electorate.

  • Chris White 1st Nov '11 - 9:06am

    Tom: it was an odd tone and did not reflect the tenor of the debate. Most on FE feel strongly that we should contest these elections and the vote (as I have said elsewhere on Lib Dem Voice today) was to ensure that this could happen if local parties wanted it. NB the possibility of an English party or Regional Party veto was expressly set aside – not least because local parties acting individually or in concert are constitutionally expected to field candidates.

    So I suggest everyone gets cracking and starts the selection process. In some areas this will be straightforward (there are already co-ordinating committees in some counties). In other areas, someone is going to have to convene a meeting of local party reps to get the ball rolling. But roll it must.

  • It seems to me highly unlikely that official Liberal Democrat candidates have even the slightest chance of winning any of these elections. The choice of the supplementary vote system for 3 or more candidates (like the London Mayor contest) instead of AV does not help.
    Therefore I think it is our duty as a party to use all our efforts to achieve the election of the candidate most likely to pursue a sensible and broadly liberal approach – or least likely to pursue the opposite. In some cases this may mean getting behind a really credible local independent candidate or even (less likely) a candidate representing another political party and we should in these special circumstances tolerate that.
    Avoidance of a swathe of “hangers and floggers” across the land is far more important than our amour propre on this occcasion.

  • “It seems to me highly unlikely that official Liberal Democrat candidates have even the slightest chance of winning any of these elections.”

    I bet people told Navnit Dholakia that when he first stood for council elections. Probably he should have waited for some sympathetic independents to come along.

  • “Most on FE feel strongly that we should contest these elections and the vote”

    Chris – I understand that. However by the vote and subsequent publicity on the issue of funding these campaigns they have really undermined any candidates and campaigns (which will be difficult enough).

    Was there any debate on that point, what points did you (as Cllr rep) raise and how did you vote?

  • Leekliberal 1st Nov '11 - 2:10pm

    @ balbs says…’If worrying about losing deposits is the reasoning behind this then the rightful accusation will be that the party hasn’t got the guts to take its policies to the electorate.’ It’s not guts we lack its money! Apart from the £5000 deposit there is the cost of printing and postage for our election communication for ,in our case, a whole county. It’s even more expensive than a General election where there is a freepost delivery available. With no funding from HQ I cannot see how local parties can afford this exceptt in our strongest areas. Perhaps those who think fielding Police Commissioner candidates is a priority should set to and raise some money to pay for a campaign – Local Party Agent

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