Sometimes having a microphone thrust under your nose instantly crystalizes your thoughts. As you hear yourself speak, you realise you have strong opinions when a moment before you didn’t know what to think.
On Thursday night, as I left a Police and Crime Commissioner hustings in Shropshire, I was struggling to gather my thoughts. A reporter from BBC Radio Shropshire, gloriously named James Bond, thrust a microphone at me. “Andy. What did you think of the candidates?”
The hustings was a meeting that nearly didn’t happen. A local Ludlow man had organised it off his own back when he realised that the candidates were not coming to South Shropshire to meet the electorate. Sadly, the three candidates for West Mercia – Conservative, Labour and independent – were far from impressive.
The Conservative struck me as a competent administrator, strong on facts, and well connected. He had even met the Home Secretary days before – as he proudly told us this in his second sentence. The Labour man was, on his account, a great manager, running a public-private partnership healthcare company. Both candidates repeatedly stressed that the commissioner role is non-political, but they were so obviously party men through and through. The independent candidate was of a different calibre altogether. A community activist, he was quiet spoken, at times passionate. He did not ooze professionally honed confidence like the other two. An ex-policeman, Bill Bradshaw was simply an “Honest Bill”.
What these men had in abundance was pragmatics. What they lacked in shedloads was any sense of policy and vision. They uttered good words – on antisocial behaviour, on agency working, on victim support in particular. But they lacked joined up ideas.
None would have gained even a junior job in a communications team. Not one of them brought a manifesto, though Bill had a glossy flyer. The Labour man even boldly declared that he had “just discovered” Facebook! We were promised high profile candidates with personality and communication skills. There was none of that evident at the hustings.
If I had been asked after the meeting exactly what each candidate stood for I would have said “motherhood and apple pie”. As it happened, the BBC reporter asked me for a summary opinion. I heard myself saying:
“We were told the Police Commissioner posts would attract high profile candidates. People with a sense of vision that would transform policing. We haven’t got that. This is no better that parish pump politics.”
I was surprised at the harshness of my own verdict, but the more I reflect on it, the more I think it is spot on.
Whether Police and Crime Commissioners are a good thing or not, we are stuck with them. After the Shropshire hustings, I am worried that the quality of candidates will undermine confidence in the role of the commissioner, and perhaps of the police service itself.
Who will win this election? West Mercia is predominately a Tory area and we are facing a very low turnout of electors. I have little doubt that the Conservative will get the most votes, but may not get the 50% required under the supplementary vote system. That means that either the Labour man or Honest Bill could get in.
My money is Bill. A high profile personality he is not. But perhaps his quiet manner, and his commitment to community rather than politics, is just what we need.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Ludlow, Shropshire. He writes on communities, planning, the environment and history.