Opinion: we must campaign to win in every election

Those of us who have been around a while will remember fighting nationwide elections we knew we couldn’t win. European elections were always like this until the nineties, when we suddenly made a (minor) breakthrough even before PR voting was introduced.

So in the scheme of things Thursday’s PCC elections were nothing new.

We didn’t manage a second place but equally our core vote came out, even in areas where the English Party rules or regional party discouragement meant that unnecessarily we did not have candidates in place until the last minute.

We showed that we do have something to say on police and crime and managed to drag our campaigners out for an extra bit of campaigning in a month in which,  frankly, we would all rather be at home dreaming of lighter evenings. This can only help the county council elections next year.

But we only put up as many candidates as the increasingly dangerous UKIP  which commentators have not failed to notice.

This was in part due to the attempt at a boycott by some in the Party Leadership and the state parties.

There were two motives, as far as I understand it, behind this, one tactical and the other principled.

Given that, we were told, the other parties supported the rise of the independents, there was a real possibility that they too might not field candidates in all police areas. We could stand aloof from the daft policy (which our parliamentarians had voted through parliament) and gain some sort of kudos for not politicising the police – but without the political risk of handing the contests over to the other two main parties on a plate.

Thus was written a new paragraph in the definition of naivete, believing that political parties won’t act politically. The other parties always intended to contest these elections because they are elections. We could learn from this.

The other issue was the matter of principle, that we shouldn’t politicise the police. It is remarkable how many people adhere to this, not just the politically active but also the electorate in general. The number of spoiled ballot papers reflects this rather than the relatively novel electoral system.

We vote in general elections on the army, personal social care, even matters impinging on religious belief. There is nothing so special about the police that they should somehow be exempted from political manifestos. In 1993 I was elected to the county council at a time when the police authority and the county council were one and the same.  Should we have boycotted the county council elections on the grounds that we were dragging the police into politics? Of course not. And we didn’t.

The intellectual case against voting and standing was never there. And we have done ourselves no credit by having attempted to give it credence.

Next time – if there is a next time – we need candidates everywhere and in good time with the Party nationally campaigning to win.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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  • The PPC elections WERE different to any ‘normal’ set of elections.

    They were a brand new constitutional innovation vesting a dangerous level of power over policing in one elected figure instead of in the century old Police Authorities that were a balance of views including (indirectly) elected Cllrs and a range of others such as magistrates etc. The USA model that is being copied is a bad one with an average job occupancy of 18 months and many controversies over corruption, political nepotism and Commissioners running for election on populist ‘hang em and flog em’ issues.

    Until 2010 we opposed them completely -first when Blair/New Labour toyed with the idea and then when the Tories adopted it instead. -I crossed swords with the Tories over the issue when I led for the Lib Dems on Labour Police and Crime legislation going through Parliament in 2009. Post 2010 we had to accept the legislation as part of the Coalition compromise just as the Cons had to accept our moves on an AV Referendum and Lords Reform. But like the Cons over those issues that did not mean that the Lib Dem Party as a whole, especially outside Parliament, had to let these plans through unopposed when it came to the ground campaign.

    Had we, on principle, boycotted the elections entirely (as nearly half of us did across the 41 areas) and run a vigorous campaign for a boycott by voters what would the result have been? Well do you know we would actually have been on the same side as more than 85% of the electorate and the case against would have been widely heard. I say more than 85% because of course even among the paltry 15% turnout there were significantly more deliberately spoilt ballot papers than usual. Faced with not using my vote for the first time since I was 18 I adopted a rather better USA electoral custom and cast a ‘write in’ ballot for Bruce Wayne. After all if we are going to adopt a bad American idea we might as well go the whole hog and hope that Batman is real.

    What do we do in 4 years time? The Commissioners may be so well established by then that these elections do become a normal part of the electoral cycle. Or maybe the unrepresentative, (entirely white?), mainly male, mainly affluent middle class Commissioners will have started to alienate even the 15% or less who voted for them. In the same way that the damp squib of elected Mayors is trickling into the sands -rejected last week by Hartlepool after a 10 year experiment for example .

    Either way we missed a good opportunity this time round to campaign vigorously for something that not only we believed in -but so did the vast majority of the voters.

  • I took the view that somebody was always going to win even if just one person voted – so if there is a contest we should stand. I was also in out manifesto to have elections for police authorities – so the idea of direct elections of ‘politicians’ to run the police was supported by Liberal Democrats . However I think we also would of allowed non-elected experts onto the authority in addition to the elected members. I.e. replace the County Cllrs with directly elected PAMs (Police Authority Members).

    But this version of democracy of putting all the power in one person’s hands is opposed in Lib Dem policy, in the same way our policy is to oppose elected mayors. However we still contest mayoral elections.

    The decision to put barriers in the way of Lib Dem candidates putting themselves forward was not taking in an open and transparent way.
    If for example @Paul had won a debate at federal conference I would be happy to campaign for abolition of the role and a boycott of the vote as that would of been a democratic and open decision of the party in which party members could of had a decent debate before a vote on the matter. But that never happened – the rules were decided in closed meetings by a small elite.

  • I’m with Paul and strongly against the article – we missed a golden opportunity to connect with 85% of voters who are at various points on the spectrum from don’t care, to don’t want power for a large area concentrated in one person, via don’t want to politicise police and don’t want a pointless election which costs money (however strong the argument about transferring police authority funding.)

    My hope is that we have elected the first and last police commissioners, but I’d hoped our party would be clearer that we were supporting a Tory compromise, not the concept itself. Our halfway in halfway out position just showed our divisions. Had we been clearer that this was nothing to do with us, rather than Labour jumping onto the bandwagon, we would have got the attention of many people who have stopped listening to us.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Nov '12 - 1:57pm

    I’m also with Paul Holmes. What I’m getting is that there was not just indifference but actually a great deal of anger about these positions. People felt this role should NOT be politicised. Also while the commentariat in this country seems obsessed with directly elected mayors, and this PCC thing is another version of the same idea of all power to one person, there seems to be quite a lot of opposition to the idea amongst ordinary people. Look at the rejection of it in all but one referendum earlier this year, and the rejection of it when it was in place in the referendum in Hartlepool last week. There are good liberal reasons for us to make a stand against all forms of one-man-one-vote system (I mean where the one man is directly elected). We are in favour of proportional representation, power shared by fair representation of all viewpoints – these one-man-one-vote systems are as far opposite to that as you can get.

    So, I think our party should have stuck with its gut instinct NOT to have put up candidates. We should have made clear why – we both dislike the idea of all power being in the hands of one person, and the idea of direct election rather than an indirect system as we had before which gives democratic input but not on a “vote for me, I’m a celebrity” basis. If we had made a very firm stand on this, and made absolutely sure the public knew that was our stand and why we were making it, I feel it would have helped a lot to re-establish a positive image for our party.

  • Bill Chapman 20th Nov '12 - 1:59pm

    The successful candidate in North Wales is and was a member of the Liberal Democrats, but forgot to tell the electorate. See:

    I wonder what your views are on this type of deceipt.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Nov '12 - 2:11pm


    However I think we also would of allowed non-elected experts onto the authority in addition to the elected members. I.e. replace the County Cllrs with directly elected PAMs (Police Authority Members).

    I feel it was a mistake for us to support even this idea. The anger of many of the public over the PCC elections suggests why.

    People feel that if they are being asked to vote for something they don’t really understand, it’s a piece of trickery, the intention is to fool them into voting for something that is not in their best interests and then to hold that vote up as evidence to use against them should they later complain. When people are voting not because they want to, but because they fear what will happen if the vote is left in the hands of just a few people who are obsessives or have some vested interests which makes them come out to vote, they are voting in resentment, they feel they are being forced into it. Consider also with public consultation – there seems to be an obsession with this, public and private bodies are always doing it, yet people are beginning to realise it’s often done in a way to justify doing what those in power wanted to do anyway. So far from being happy about being consulted, people don’t like it, they fear the system is rigged to get them to agree to something which if they had the time and knowledge to investigate properly they would oppose.

    The role of police commissioning is just too specialised and not widely known amongst ordinary people to justify direct election, either of a single post or to a dedicated committee. We have elections of committees with wide-ranging remits at local, national and European level. I think for most people that’s enough, and they are happy for other roles to be done indirectly under the control of these committees. Most people are not political wonks. They don’t want to be voting and voting all the time and to have to find out what it is they are voting for and think through what the issues are enough to come to a meaningful decision. They elect councillors and MPs to do that job for them.

  • Chris White 20th Nov '12 - 6:14pm

    Paul: I disagree on almost every point except that this is not the way to manage accountability of the police.

    Most people were annoyed not because they were given the chance of voting, not because it was for just one person, but because they felt the political parties and the government had not taken any time to inform people about what the role was or who was standing.

    Those that were opposed to the principle of electing people to oversee the police, something done in every election in the twentieth century and before, were probably not aware of the historic role of county councils and then police authorities. Some indeed were under the impression that the PCCs would somehow be operationally in charge – something that some of the elected PCCs may now also believe.

    A partial boycott by the Lib Dems was part of this neglect of the electorate and we should not treat them like this again.

  • Tony Dawson 20th Nov '12 - 6:29pm

    “The intellectual case against voting and standing was never there. And we have done ourselves no credit by having attempted to give it credence.”

    No sensible general fights every battle with the same troops and weapons regardless of whether he knows his enemy wants him to waste resources at this point in space and time and if he is out-gunned. You do not throw infantry against tanks.

    Some people in the Liberal Democrats appear to be hell bent on losing ans many elections as they can at the moment. Does it give them some sort of perverse pleasure, I wonder? The result of putting up candidates in these disgraceful elections which totally undermine the principles of local representative government (should we have a dog-poo commissioner and a parking commissioner?) has been to put the public perception of the Lib Dems in most areas even more firmly in a box along with the other parties who the voters have seen as wanting to politicise the police while sticking a fat wad in their own back pocket. The only difference is that the Lib Dems are seen, largely, to be a slightly weaker member of this disgraceful ‘club’.

    Some of us have been campaigning throughout the summer and right through October and November on matters which our voters/ local residents think relevant. We gain the respect of our electorate because we do not try to get them involved in something which NINETY PER CENT of them (slightly more, actually in our local surveys) thought was wrong. Oh yes, one other thing. We WIN elections. Perhaps, because we do not pretend.

    There are only about half a dozen Lib Dem local parties in the country at the moment who have been winning elections outside of by-elections in the recent past. We all do things differently, no doubt. I am certain that it was right, on balance, for some of them to fight Police Elections. I am equally certain that it is madness for people who are not producing any kind of successful Liberal message at the moment to be pontificating, as they lick their wounds and look at their depleted bank balance, on the conduct of others who are doing so.

  • Paul Holmes 20th Nov '12 - 7:30pm

    That’s OK Chris I often disagree with much of what you write too!

    I certainly disagree with you when you say the public were only angry at the lack of information from political parties/government rather than with the principle of electing Robocop. 10 days before polling day I was talking to about 25 people Chesterfield’s Probus Club on a different topic and brought the PCC elections up in passing to illustrate a different point. I was surprised at the rejection of the whole thing that they expressed, as I had expected most to know nothing about them (exactly 2 had received a leaflet on the issue) and/or to be indifferent. Instead they were quite positively opposed to the whole concept.

    More to the point I was making the case that we should have had a concerted campaign on the issue -you would apparently have preferred a concerted campaign in favour and I would have preferred a concerted campaign against (in line with LD Policy) -either way it should have been a concerted campaign instead of what we did have (see posting above by Andy Strange as to whether that was English Council or FE’s fault).

    Like you I certainly recall campaigning in elections where we had no chance of winning. Such as the Euro elections in 1989 when the North East Derbyshire/Sheffield seat that I helped organise the campaign in was one of only half a dozen across the UK where we did not (by a cats whisker) lose our deposit . But then we were campaigning for something we believed in rather than something such as Police Commissioners that we were opposed to. But I also remember national campaigns such as the Simon Hughes/ALDC campaign on the environment (in the days long before it was fashionable to hug a huskie along with Cameron or Milliband) which gave us a united sense of purpose in the dark days just after the merger.

    We need more campaigns like that instead of feeling hamstrung by what a handful of Ministers in a Coalition have to compromise on by the very nature of Coalition. The Liberal Democrat Party has to campaign vigorously on Liberal Democrat Policy in order to maintain our separate identity against the time when any transient Coalition ends. Conservatives, including Cameron, didn’t feel hamstrung about campaigning against AV or Lords Reform despite Coalition so why should we pull our punches over a daft policy like electing a single Police Boss in pursuit of the Blair/Cameron love for the cult of personality (and no I am not saying Cameron has much personality).

    As Deputy PM Nick may feel personally constrained by Coalition or simply too busy with the role he is in. But where are our party strategists? Where are the national campaigns for Cllrs and PPC’s alike to take up. Why not use Tim Farron’s talents (or Simon’s as in the old days) to head up such campaigns -or the excellent backbench Lib Dem MP’s who feel that they are expected to have no role but not rock the boat. Our party needs to get its head out of the Westminster bunker and get back to fighting its principles. How on earth did we miss the opportunity to score in the wide open goal of the Commissioner elections -with 85% of the voters roaring us on?

  • Paul Holmes 20th Nov '12 - 7:47pm

    PS Neither did we ‘spend the autumn evenings at home instead’ -not with County Council elections next May.

  • @Bill Chapman

    “I wonder what your views are on this type of deceipt.”

    The received(sic) wisdom is that you cannot spell it. 😉

    But seriously, I understand that (a) he has made clear that he will fulfill his duties apolitically and (b) his poiltical links were made clear during the period of the campaign.

  • Nigel Quinton 21st Nov '12 - 12:16am

    Can I agree with both Paul and Chris?

    I agree with Chris because his argument is the one that we all supported in Hertfordshire that the election was inevitably political – what isn’t? – and that if we did not fight it we would be missing an opportunity to get a message out on an important issue and allow others to paint the LibDems as having little to say on matters of law and order, when in fact we have plenty to say, much of it vastly superior to the nonsense peddled by the other two parties.

    However, I also agree with Paul that an opportunity was missed to send a message about the idiocy of the proposals, and to be on the side of the vast majority of voters.

    The problem was the total lack of leadership and of process from the party centrally. Since our MPs had voted for these elections it was always going to be difficult for the leadership to come out swinging against them, but surely we should have had this debated at conference in Gateshead, or in Birmingham last year, so that we could have heard the arguments from both sides and decided accordingly. And had Paul said what he wrote above, I think I would probably have decided that a nationally coordinated campaign boycotting the elections, attacking the idiocy of the Tories and the inconsistency of Labour, at the same time as campaigning for next year’s county elections, would have been a great idea.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Nov '12 - 9:44am

    Chris White

    Most people were annoyed not because they were given the chance of voting, not because it was for just one person, but because they felt the political parties and the government had not taken any time to inform people about what the role was or who was standing.

    The political parties had not taken time to inform people?

    Yes, and how are we supposed to do that? Many local Liberal Democrat associations run on a budget of a few thousand a year and have a membership of a couple of hundred, most of whom do nothing but pay their annual membership. If no-one volunteers to run campaigns and finance them, they won’t happen.

    I appreciate that most ordinary people don’t realise this. They moan about the political parties doing nothing as if they were a branch of government funded to provide a service. They are not. They are volunteer run and volunteer paid for and their local activity is done almost entirely by volunteers. Of whom there are very, very few.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Nov '12 - 9:50am

    Nigel Quinton

    The problem was the total lack of leadership and of process from the party centrally.

    Yup. It is time that enough decent people in the party who have the power to change things realised this and did what is needed to get rid of our current leadership and all its hangers-on, as they seem to be an entirely useless bunch, or more than useless – they actually seem to be set on damaging the party by their continuous series of bad tactics and mistakes in presentation.

  • David Allen 21st Nov '12 - 2:46pm

    I agree with Paul. We should have campaigned against the whole appalling concept of elected PCCs. Then we could have been campaigning now to have the process annulled as an invalid mandate.

    However, events have now moved on. The Tories are pointing out that as these people set to work, things will happen and interest will grow (which, from a zero base, it is bound to do!) Then when the next PCC elections are held in summer alongside real elections, turnout will “soar” and the Tories will say that PCCs are now established as a Good Thing.

    I suspect there will also be fewer Independents. I voted Indy (as least worst option), so did many others, but, one can guess what will happen. Many of the lected Indies will do fine. A few of them won’t. When the political PCCS mess up, or when they find the job is just too hard for a single peron, their parties will step in to put right failures when they can, hush them up when they can’t. The Indies will be on their own. Some of them will generate bad publicity, and so most or all of them will lose next time round.

    The only sensible thing we can do now is to come out definitively against elected PCCs, declare that the vote showed that Britain does not want them, and commit to opposing a second term renewal. And make a noise about it. Will we do the right thing? (I’m not holding my breath….)

  • David Allen 21st Nov '12 - 2:47pm

    Person not peron, Argentinian Freudian slip!

  • Nigel Quinton,
    “The problem was the total lack of leadership and of process from the party centrally… we should have had this debated at conference in Gateshead, or in Birmingham last year.”

    So the problem is inherent to the weakness of the federal committee system and it’s particular decentralised structure, not the personalities in Westminster.

    Matthew Huntbach,
    you had the opportunity to ‘get rid’ of this “entirely useless bunch” in the recent federal party elections.

    Did you stand as a candidate? What was your manifesto for changing the system of internal party democracy to ensure we are actually covering all the important issues?

  • David Rogers 21st Nov '12 - 5:08pm

    As the Lib Dem candidate for Sussex PCC last week, I can confirm that Chris’ explanation of voter antagonism/anger is correct. This was made abundantly clear to me in my many contacts with “real” people, at hustings meetings and by way of emails to my website. I also fully support Chris’ point that “The intellectual case against voting and standing was never there”, and those who parroted the line about not politicising the police – whether they were so-called independent candidates (who stood to benefit from this deception) or otherwise – were either naive or prepared to endorse uninformed media commentators. On another tack, how many of those who have commented on this post are from London, and hence have no county elections to fight in a few months?

  • David Allen 21st Nov '12 - 6:02pm

    “it’s a little strange to see Liberal Democrats arguing that the police should not be politicised, since decisions about police priorities are essentially political.”

    OK then, what about decisions about health priorities, or educational priorities? Why don’t we elect Commissioners to oversee the NHS “reforms”, or the Gove “reforms”?

    I think the answer is that crime is an issue which the Tories like to campaign on. Worrying about law and order brings Tories votes. So they have had the clever wheeze of a whole new election on just that subject.

    Health is an issue that Tories hate to campaign on. It loses them votes. So they just drive a bill through Parliament and then keep as quiet as they can, while their supporters in the medical field use the opportunities provided to fill their pockets.

  • David Allen 21st Nov '12 - 6:12pm

    Let’s spell out just why political control of the police is such a dangerous idea.

    It’s what a banana republic does. It’s what used to be the position, in the bad old days, in our own province of Ulster. The police were run by one side to serve the interests of one side, and everybody knew it.

    If we had had political PCCs at the time of the miners’ strike, would we have seen Labour PCCs taking action against Chief Constables if they stopped the flying pickets? Would we have seen Tory PCCs taking action against Chief Constables who refused to send their police into battle with the miners?

    We won’t have another miners’ strike. We might well have riots, we might well have a violent successor to the Occupy campaign, we might well have anti-immigrant marches and violence. When we have to cope with those things, we shall want a police force that is not controlled by a political party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Nov '12 - 12:23pm


    Matthew Huntbach,
    you had the opportunity to ‘get rid’ of this “entirely useless bunch” in the recent federal party elections.

    Did you stand as a candidate?

    No, I have a full time job, I have bills to pay. I can afford neither the time nor the money which would be required to stand for and work effectively in a post like this.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Nov '12 - 12:29pm

    David Allen

    OK then, what about decisions about health priorities, or educational priorities? Why don’t we elect Commissioners to oversee the NHS “reforms”, or the Gove “reforms”?

    Or why don’t we get rid of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee and put its decision making into the hands of a directly elected person?

    It wasn’t that long ago that Liberal Democrats were boasting about what a good liberal thing it was for us to have supported the idea of de-politicising the Bank of England. Seems to me that’s much the same sort of thing – a role where there’s good reasons for it to be at arms length from direct election, and good reason for it not being all they hands of one person.

  • Grace Goodlad 23rd Nov '12 - 11:12am

    The main error was our MPs putting our hands up and supporting the stupid idea in the first place. These elections were pretty much unwinnable for Lib Dems and were always going to favour Tories (as per several other posters above). Once our MPs endorsed this stupid election we were pretty much doomed either way.

    Stand and lose, or don’t stand and take constant flack

    Personally I would not like to defend the attacks claiming that LibDems are “Soft on Crime” , “Don’t care about Crime”, “Have no plan for Crime” etc., etc. etc.

    The tories can and will use the trumped up “The Lib Dems didn’t even bother to stand a Police and Crime Commissioner Candidate, they don’t care about crime in our area” line in May. Personally I don’t think that the intellectual “we don’t agree with the politicization of the Police line” will really hold up against pictures of old ladies who have been mugged and burgled.

    As for the losing lots of elections issue. .. If we should only stand candidates every time we are confident we will win that would rather make us look foolish. How many people here are keen/desperate to ensure we have a full slate in the County elections in May? Who here is a weak parliamentary seat says “Let’s not bother with a PPC we will only lose”. We all know politics doesn’t work like that.

    Having had the very dubious privilege of acting as Agent for one of our PCC candidates I can tell you my personal experience of the public responses we were getting – from emails I got (all campaign emails came through my inbox) and from feedback from the candidate and doorstep campaigners.

    1) Most people were very confused by this election. They could not understand why they had had so little material, from anyone – I believe that this is a reflection of the lack of a freepost. Most voters probably dont fully comprehend quite how many doors there are to get round in a police area and couldnt see why they had not received a full set of literature.

    2)Those that were more aware felt that the official PARO approved website was a waste of time. 250 words told voters nothing.

    3) Due to the appalling communications many voters wondered if they were really entitled to vote as they had had so little literature.

    4) All non IT literate people were heavily discriminated against in terms of what information was available.

    5) Most of the electorate did not agree with an elected PCC. They did however agree that if one political party stood, the others should, although they would prefer no election, or at least an independent.


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