Opinion: A liberal future for police and crime commissioners

Police helmetI was the Lib Dem candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner in Surrey, although I am yet to be convinced that such roles are necessary or desirable as the right way to tackle the problem, or even if ‘we’ understand what the ‘problem’ is. But our government set them up, they are a publically elective post, and we are in the business of standing for public office.

PCCs were the Tories’ solution looking for a problem: they were determined to put these posts into place whatever the situation, irrespective of the merits or otherwise. So the British public gave a pretty damning verdict on a reform that few understood, even fewer saw the need for, and none seem to have wanted or trusted.

Policing is going down the road of schools and the NHS. Every government meddles a bit to ‘improve’ the service, blissfully ignoring the evidence that the system does not need heavy-handed political interference. Police need to be responsive to local needs, with high quality professional standards, transparently followed and enforced when and where necessary. The public’s trust should be assured through bodies like HMIC and the (sadly rather ineffective and inadequate) IPCC. Perhaps opening up the Police Authorities and reform of the IPCC were what was necessary, not creation of yet more mini-fiefdoms in an already crowded area.

The party went into the PCC elections completely at odds with itself. Many members fundamentally opposed the posts and refused to get involved in the campaign or vote (or voted ‘Independent’). The party ignored the elections, giving those candidates who did manage to secure local agreement to stand no support what so ever.

The party must sort out its approach to police governance, and develop a coherent and Liberal set of policies.

A number of questions must be answered:
• Should the posts of PCC be retained?
• If so, do they need reforms?
• If not, what should replace them?
• Should political parties be discouraged from nominating candidates?
• Should we go further and try to get agreement from the two other main parties (and UKIP) that none of us will put forward candidates (and how democratic would that be)?
• Even if the other parties put forward candidates, should we?
(This position went by default last time, without proper internal discussion and debate. If we are not to stand candidates, this should first be debated and agreed internally, with clear understanding of why this alone of all elected public offices we refuse to give the public the opportunity to vote for Liberal Democrats.)
• What should our policies for PCCs be on such issues as the use of effective resolution, the role of PCSOs, extension of local and neighbourhood policing?

This debate needs to open up within the party soon, and be addressed by our policy makers well in advance of the 2015 general election and the proposed 2016 PCC elections, otherwise we will be in no better position than we were for the 2012 elections.

* Nick O’Shea is Chair of the Mole Valley Liberal Democrats. He was the Liberal Democrat Candidate for Surrey’s Police & Crime Commissioner in 2012, served on Mole Valley District Council between 1991 and 1999 (and group leader 1997-8). His family has a background of police service in Surrey going back nearly a century.

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  • A pity this article got a bit buried last night, these are good questions that deserve some air-time, although I think we are too split to come up with definitive answers.

    I was in the refuseniks category for two reasons:

    1 – I hated the idea of taking power from democratically elected reps from each councils, and giving it to one person who doesn’t know the whole area well (certainly in our case.) The opposite of localism, and I felt the best way I could protest was to reduce the turnout that little bit more.

    2 – I’ve never gone along with the idea that Lib Dems should put up a candidate just because there’s an election of some form. I’ve always thought we believe things could be done better, have some ideas how to do so, and when there’s an opportunity to make that happen through an elected role we get organised and put up a candidate. I never felt that with Police Commissioners, and our mantra of ‘always stand’ is the wrong way round for me.

    But I fully respect colleagues who actively supported and campaigned for the candidates, and who continue to scrutinise on Police & Crime Panels. My guess is that unless PCCs are abolished at the end of this first term (yes please) we will continue to fudge by allowing the decisions on whether to stand a candidate locally – the trust in regional parties to organise this is about the only positive here for me.

  • David Rogers 4th Jun '13 - 11:11am

    I do not share tpfkar’s “refusnik” position, but like him respect colleagues who have that view. As the party’s (eventually) agreed PCC candidate for Sussex, I agree absolutely with the views expressed in Nick O’Shea’s original article. In particular, he draws attention to the lack of support for candidates – it was indeed a lonely position in which to find oneself, and very different from the experience of any other public election which I have contested over nearly forty years. I remain exceptionally grateful to Rob Banks, vice-chair of Lewes constituency, who acted as my agent, and to a small number of friends in a some Sussex constituencies who were honourable exceptions to the pervading lack of confidence and commitment to campaigning.
    The results last November – despite the low turnout – were a clear indication of the voters’ trend towards independents and UKIP, which was repeated with greater force last month in this year’s local elections. Thus there are both political and organisational lessons to be drawn from the experience, and as Nick sets out, the party as a whole needs to get it’s act together long before the next time PCC elections are due.
    David Rogers OBE, East Sussex county councillor 1977-2013; member of the former Sussex Police Authority for much of that time, and it’s Chair 2001-3.

  • Thank you for the kind comment David – and thank you for flying the flag for us. I believe we were right to stand but in the longer term the party should, ideally, commit to abolishing these posts and returning to police authorities. If it cannot do that then it should allow for these posts to be scrapped via a referendum of the electorate, as has happened with the directly elected Mayoral post in Stoke.

  • Completely agree with this article. Come 2016 I hope we either fight them properly or as a party boycott them. We need to sort this out and a national conference in the next 18 months and party members should have a vote. Our approach in 2012 left most of the electorate bewildered and led to more damaging headlines. I’m keen to avoid this in 2016.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Jun '13 - 4:02pm

    I think we should boycott PCC elections, and boycott directly elected mayor elections.

    We should explain that it is a FUNDAMENTAL part of Liberal Democracy that power ultimately should be shared, that any public governance position should be under the control of a council with enough elected members to represent all major opinions and elected in a way that ensures they do. This idea that it is better for all power to be put into the hands of one person because that makes it more accountable is against all we stand for – it is the politics developed by Mussolini in Italy in the early part of this century, he used just those lines, and we know where they led to.

    The public has shown no enthusiasm for these one-man one-vote elections (the one man elected gets the one vote). They have not caused any sort of democratic revival. They have simply concentrated power in the hands of a loud mouthed elite and shut out the rest. Decent people like David Rogers who have contested them owe it to the more democratic decentralised form of election to be able to rise to the position of being known enough to be put forward. if all we have are one-man one-vote positions, there will be no ladder to climb to reach them. It will just be variations on Boris – a ridiculous and incompetent figure who people vote for just because he started off rich and has the favour of the rich so he’s the only one they have heard of and hey vote for him on that basis.

  • Nick O'Shea 4th Jun '13 - 5:28pm

    I can understand people not liking the idea of PCCs (or elected Mayors), where one person holds considerable sway and power and in the case of PCCs, there is little democratic accountability, despite the ‘elective’nature of the role since so few bothered to vote, at least last time.

    However, not having Lib Dem candidates as a matter of policy in national elections where all the pther parties do raises a number of problems:
    1/ many members of the public would ask why we are not standing, and think our answer: ‘because we don’t agree with the post’ is a cop out because we think we’ll do badly. After all, we don’t agree with FPTP but still stand for elections where it is used, from Parish councils all the way up to MPs.
    2/ by not standing candidates, we give voters the hard choice and option of voting for one of the other parties, and they might then never come back to vote for us again.
    3/ in the PCC elections, if we had not had candidates our destictive liberal policies would have been lost, the press would have ignorred us and the hang’en and flog’em brigade would have had the stage to themselves. In the mind of the electorate, no candidate = not interested / don’t care. Not the message we should give at all.
    4/ not standing candidates here is also a first step to, say, not appointing members to the Defence Select Committee because we do not approve of Trident. To oppose a policy, you need to be in the debate.

    So, we can have a debate about whether the party should campaign to abolish PCCs and go back to more open, more accountable elected Police Authorites or PAs as a joint committee of an area’s principal authorities (as the PCP is), but just hiding from the PCC elections is not how we should behave as a responsible party trying to build a better society and persuade people to elect us, whether it be to the Parish Council, parliament, or as a PCC..

  • Tony Dawson 4th Jun '13 - 10:33pm

    @Nick O’Shea :

    ” not having Lib Dem candidates as a matter of policy in national elections where all the other parties do raises a number of problems:
    1/ many members of the public would ask why we are not standing,”

    Not so. The number of residents in most towns making such a statement could be counted on your fingers and toes. Most people did not have and still have not the slightest interest in any aspect of these elections. They have already long forgotten them including the superannuated self-servers who have gained many of these positions.

    The number of people making

  • Sue Doughty 5th Jun '13 - 10:00am

    Firstly, the question of whether to put up candidates. There are many elected posts and systems which we dislike but provide, under present laws the only opportunity to gain office, whether it is co-option to a Parish Council or directly elected PCCs and Mayors. To boycott is no option as it indicates that we would only want to play according to our rules. Nor is a stitch up with the other parties to agree not to stand which would bring us all into disrepute.

    I completely agree with the fact that the directly elected post should be abolished and that we need some policy on police governance.

    It is also true that, rather like standing as the directly elected mayor of London, candidacy is rather lonely and we need to be doing much more to support candidates next time round. We have to draw a line under what happened last time and start to look at the future. This means candidate assessment, It also means putting pressure on the government and the electoral commission to allow a free post distribution so that the public at least know what the choice is. It means motivating local parties to get involved and it means ensuring that PCC elections take place always alongside other elections. We can do much better.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jun '13 - 4:25pm

    Sue Doughty

    Firstly, the question of whether to put up candidates. There are many elected posts and systems which we dislike but provide, under present laws the only opportunity to gain office, whether it is co-option to a Parish Council or directly elected PCCs and Mayors. To boycott is no option

    These posts proved so unpopular, people so resented being asked to vote for them, that I feel a boycott of the elections WOULD have served us well. I don’t mean just not standing, I mean distributing literature explaining why we are not standing and putting the case for government by representative councils, not by elected dictators.

  • David Allen 5th Jun '13 - 5:32pm

    OK, serious debate, trivial comment here, but I can’t resist:

    “Not having Lib Dem candidates (for PCCs)…… is a cop out”

    You don’t say!

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jun '13 - 1:54pm

    David (Roger, not Allen) – as you know, while I moved from Sussex many years ago, all the rest of my immediate family still live in the county I still regard as my true “home”. I do rely quite a lot on them for a feeling of how political life is outside that big city up north (i.e. London) where I now live. When the PCC elections were on, I did try to use the line “Look, you know I used to know David, he’s a good bloke, like it or not this election is happening, and you really ought to vote for him as the best candidate in it”. Well, I myself have always been a strong opponent of directly elected mayors, and oppose the existence of these PCC posts for the same reason. But I was really taken aback by the vehemence of the response I got from friends and family back in Sussex on this issue. It was not just that they couldn’t be bothered to vote, it was that they were ANGRY about being asked to vote. They felt it was so wrong for this position to be put in the hands of one person and politicised, they didn’t really understand what the position was about and they didn’t like to be asked to make a choice on that basis, they felt that to cast a vote in it would be seen as an endorsement of it, and they didn’t want that, they would not have voted for you even if we were back in the days when the Liberal Democrats were a party I could proudly support and most people I know in Sussex went along with me on that i.e. before this wretched coalition and this wretched Clegg leadership.

    When people don’t want to vote, it isn’t always because they aren’t democratically minded. If you are asked to make a choice, but the choices offered are limited, actually you didn’t want what was being chosen anyway, and you don’t feel you have enough information to know what would be the best choice, you resent it because you fear if you vote it will be “taken down as evidence and used against you”. How many times does this happen in this modern world – some fake consultation exercise is put up, the way it’s presented is rigged, yet once it’s done you are told “The decision is made, it’s what the people said they wanted, so shut up and accept it”?

  • Simon Banks 22nd Jun '13 - 9:58am

    I think Matthew’s position is overstated. Elected Mayors in various countries, including ours, have often increased voter participation and the existence of an elected mayor need not mean there is no elected body (s)he has to work with. We are fundamentally in favour of devolution of power, yet where a small local authority has been unnecessarily merged into something larger, we haven’t refused to stand. Of course, elected police commissioners totally failed to engage more voters and I see little sign that now they’re in office, this will change much, so that’s an argument for abolishing them.

    I think the party’s position should be as follows:

    (1): We oppose the idea of elected commissioners without elected boards or accountability to councils, and will abolish them.
    (2): Since the positions exist, we will stand where appropriate.
    (3): We may choose instead to support independents who have Liberal ideas and are more acceptable than the other candidates.
    (4): The decision should be up to the appropriate local level of the party.
    (5): The Party at national and regional level will support campaigns for properly-adopted Liberal Democrat candidates and any such candidates who get elected.

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