Opinion: why elected Police Commissioners will be less democratic and accountable

Firstly, let me declare an interest. I am against elected Police and Crime Commissioners. I see them as a step backwards, allowing personality politics at the top of our police forces. It was in the Coalition Agreement though, so you would think the Liberal Democrats would be taking their strong message about tackling crime to the country.

On November 15th, we see the first ever Police and Crime Commissioner Elections in England and Wales. London has already plumped for Boris, who will take on this remit as Mayor of London. Let’s just say that the lack of interest in these elections is startling but unsurprising. Exactly a year out from these elections, on November 15th, 2011, I wrote a piece for this website  setting out why I felt that the Lib Dem attitude to fighting these elections was ‘baffling. Six months down the line, we have seen little or no progress. This is the biggest reorganisation at the top of our police forces and the Liberal Democrats have seemingly adopted the position of bystanders.

Meanwhile, Labour who were initially against Police and Crime Commissioners are approaching these elections with gusto. Figures like former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott (Humberside), Jane Kennedy (Merseyside), Vera Baird (Northumbria) and Alun Michael (South Wales) are all tipped to make a comeback to public life. According to the Police Federation, in the 44 Police Authorities who will be holding elections, they are only aware of 8 ‘interested’ Liberal Democrat candidates. I am happy to be corrected if there are any other areas planning to put up a fight. Of these, few confirm more than a passing interest and the name Lembit Opik crops up in Northumbria with the comments – “Liberal Democrats have hatched …a plan to bring in Lembit Opik as their candidate.” I like Lembit but I will believe that when I see it.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently wrote a column for my local paper – the Manchester Evening News. In his article, he proves wildly out of touch saying that:

We’re scrapping unelected and invisible police authorities whose duties hardly anyone understands and for the first time you’ll be able to vote directly for a powerful new local champion instead – a police and crime commissioner.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand his point. It is simply not true to say Police Authorities are ‘unelected’. Take Greater Manchester Police Authority for example, the bulk of which is made up of elected members. Every Council democratically sends one member and they vote for the leader. I would argue that with all the power in one person’s hands, our Police will be become less democratic and less accountable.

Then there is the cost – A question in the House of Lords by Chris Rennard revealed that the cost of holding these elections in times of extreme austerity was an astonishing £75 million. That’s £75 million for an election that no one asked for. The cost for taxpayers in Manchester will be higher, after Tony Lloyd MP announced he was standing down from his Manchester Central Parliamentary seat to fight these elections. This by-election in November will cost many thousands to run.  I look forward to Mr Lloyd trying to justify Labour’s ‘criminal’ record over 13 disastrous years.

Further in his piece for the Manchester Evening News, Mr Cameron makes a plea for more candidates to stand – ‘…this is a time for great candidates to come forward’ he says. Well yes, if you’ve got the £5000 it costs to enter the race. Turnout is set to be dreadfully low, especially in the light of the decision not to allow candidates a freepost address. According the Electoral Commission, this will disenfranchise up to 7 million people without access to the internet and put independent candidates at a distinct disadvantage to the major political parties. Is this what we call democracy?

The whole Police Commissioner elections has been a farce right from the start.. While we cannot change the fact that these elections are happening, our Parliamentarians can ensure that the process is as fair as possible. Our Federal Executive and other party bosses can get their act together to ensure that the Liberal Democrats play a part in the debate about the future of policing.

* Dave Hennigan is a Lib Dem member in Macclesfield (formerly Levenshulme)

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28 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th May '12 - 12:38pm

    If this was £75 million spent on some LibDem constitutional initiative, you can be sure the right-wing-press-Labour alliance would be howling about it.

  • These elections are happening whether we like them or not – deal with it – stand a candidate and tell them why a Lib Dem’s view on crime and policing is better than that of the far-right candidates (which is where the views of most Labour & Tories are on this subject)

  • David’s piece is interesting but seems to lack a conclusion as to what we should do.

    I have an answer (which may not be popular with some). Let’s call for a boycott of the elections. As he says, they will cost £75 million and there is absolutely no demand for them. Why should we stand in order to give some democratic legitimacy to such a farce?

    I expect the objections to this will be:

    1. The ALDC response – we should always stand a candidate to give people a chance to vote Lib Dem and get our views across. Whilst I agree with this on most occasions, I suspect that we will get much more coverage for our views if we called for a boycott and argued why this should be a local government function rather than leaving it to an individual (and let’s face it, the chances of a roaring success in these elections is slim).

    2. It was in the Coalition Agreement. True enough and we passed it through Parliament but it was a Tory policy and there is nothing to stop the party rank and file deciding that we should stick with our Lib Dem views that this is a waste of time and money, undermines true local accountability through local government and will be a comfortable home for another class of politicians (who truth be told, will do very little for their money).

    Is anyone with me on this?

  • Tony Dawson 30th May '12 - 3:30pm

    @MarkG:

    “Why should we stand in order to give some democratic legitimacy to such a farce?”

    ” we should stick with our Lib Dem views that this is a waste of time and money, undermines true local accountability through local government and will be a comfortable home for another class of politicians (who truth be told, will do very little for their money).”

    This was pretty much the argument which determined the unanimous position of the Southport Liberal Democrat executive committee after we debated the issue in January. (This Committee determines matters where there is a vote unanimously about as often as there are annular eclipses).

    I would imagine that the chances of anyone in our area lifting a finger in October/November, other than to deride the career bureaucrat politicians who are trying to pack their personal pockets at the public expense in their battle to be self-important ineffectual nobodies, is about as close to zero as can be measured.

  • Dave Hennigan 30th May '12 - 3:36pm

    Fair point Mark – I went over the word limit – my conclusions were:

    (1) reduce the £5000 cost.
    (2) ensure each candidate has a freepost.

  • Toby MacDonnell 30th May '12 - 4:12pm

    It’s not that the Police Commissioners are less democratic: it’s that they’re more democratic which is the problem. Democracy is an excellent tool for securing concent to abide by the law, and to measure the appetites for it, but the enforcement of the law itself should be applied by elites. Opening enforcement of the law to the decisions of the demos creates the risk of resources being allocated inefficiently to appease a comissioner’s mannifesto.

    The arguement in favour is that by creating a feedback or demand mechanism for the police service the public’s faith in the law is increased as the petty crimes they can’t stand are cracked down: loitering, litterbugging, noise pollution, and other anti-social behaviour is dealt with at the comissioner’s request and makes people feel safer. I’m not sure that persecution of bored kids trying to create a little excitement through transgressive behaviour in sleepy, dull lower-middle class suburbbs is going to do much for the police’s street cred with the demographic they need to reach out to most.

    I suppose the only solution is “suck it and see”, but for now I remain sceptical and think that if we can get Lib Dems elected to deliver the same level of professionalism and empathy they deliver in all other lines of government that might even improve the current situation, and would be the saving grace of commissioners. The one thing I am convinced of, though, is that anti-social behaviour should not be dealt with by being tougher, but by being smarter, and although the status quo doesn’t allow for too much variation perhaps this new system will do some good somewhere.

  • Harry Hayfield 30th May '12 - 5:57pm

    Hear Hear, this is what I have been trying to impress upon the Welsh Lib Dems since the local elections. If we don’t contest a national election (which these elections are) and then ask people to vote for us at the next ones (the European Elections), what’s to stop them saying “No, you didn’t want anything to do with the police elections, so why should we believe that you want something to do with the European Elections?”

  • Stuart Mitchell 30th May '12 - 6:01pm

    “Then there is the cost…”

    If I were a Lib Dem I’d be keeping very quiet about the cost of these unwanted elections. Don’t forget that £25m of the cost is the “Lib Dem Electoral Damage Limitation Premium”, i.e. extra costs incurred because the Lib Dems asked for the elections to be delayed 6 months in order to improve their councillors’ chances in the recent local elections.

  • Whatever our view of these elections, we cannot allow the disgraceful view of the other parties on crime go unchallenged. If we don’t stand up and put the case for things like restorative justice, alternatives to prison, decriminalising drugs ( or at least stopping persecuting young people who have an occasional spliff), treating rape and domestic violence with the seriousness they deserve and making serious attempts at crime prevention, then the hang ’em, flog ’em shoot ’em brigade will make all the running. There is a coalition to be created around these ideas that only we can build. Opting out of democracy is never a serious choice.

  • I’m with MarkG’s boycott proposal. Doesn’t the ALDC response apply to elections that we’re in favour of? I think the point of it is that we should try to stand council / parliamentary candidates even in areas where we don’t expect to win. I don’t think it means we should stand candidates for posts that we disagree with on principal.

    Personally I won’t be sorry to see the elections turned into a farce through sparsity of candidates and low turnout. The whole idea is stupid, for the reasons Toby MacDonnell laid out. I was relieved most of the city mayor referenda failed as well and perhaps if there is little enough interest in the police commissioner elections the posts can be scrapped in a few years time. That is what we should be campaigning for – admittedly it’ll be difficult to abolish jobs after people have dug themselves in (look at the Lords) but it can be done. Wasn’t the old London Assembly abolished? Must look up how that happened…

  • Liberal neil 30th May '12 - 7:14pm

    @Catherine – we don’t agree with first past the post elections for local councils or the House of Commons but we still stand in them.

  • Some of this reminds me of a letter in a local newspaper recently. Claiming the best way to get rid of all the nasty politicians and replace them with something much better is not to vote at all!

    Trying to find out who is standing locally (or what they stand for) currently requires a bit of online detective work.
    If it stays like this, I reckon most voters won’t know there ARE elections, let alone who to support.

  • “Doesn’t the ALDC response apply to elections that we’re in favour of? I”

    We have stood in nearly all the Mayoral elections – in some cases after campaigning against Mayors in referenda.

  • Sir Grumble 31st May '12 - 9:22am

    can something be “startling but unsurprising”, I’m not convinced.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st May '12 - 10:34am

    Political party candidates are appropriate for a general purpose assembly, but a special purpose single position is another thing. I think there’s a good case for arguing these should not be fought with party political labels, but instead we should be looking for individuals with appropriate skills regardless of party membership.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st May '12 - 10:38am

    cassie

    Some of this reminds me of a letter in a local newspaper recently. Claiming the best way to get rid of all the nasty politicians and replace them with something much better is not to vote at all!

    People who say things like this should be asked “OK, so how WOULD you like things to be run instead?” E.g. would they like the NHS to be abolished so that health care was entirely the responsibility of private bodies? Would they like to go back to the days when power was in the hands of a hereditary aristocracy? Would they like a military coup and everything run by generals? Or what?

  • Well, I am glad to see that I am not entirely on my own…..

    As to standing in elections we don’t agree with, of course we have to stand if we disagree with the electoral systems but support the body. I would also accept that we have to stand in Mayoral elections because even if we disagree with them, they are seen as a big deal and a serious electoral test. Police and Crime Commissioners completely fail that test. Let’s save the money and put out leaflets on what our councillors are doing – in most areas, those are elections we can and do win (and even more so if we are working all year round).

    @Tony Dawson makes another good point. Our hard-pressed supporters don’t want to be involved in these elections either. A sure-fire way to alienate them is to ask them to deliver leaflets that they don’t see the point of. (Luckily, I live in London so will not face this dilemma). On the other hand, a boycott with a coherent alternative vision might re-engage supporters as well as getting us more noticed than if we participate particularly since it is clear that our participation is going to be half-hearted and done on the cheap.

    @Dave Hennigan – I agree those points would improve the outcome and democratic legitimacy of the process. However, they are not going to happen. So, assuming that they don’t, should we still participate?

    My fear is that we will get the worst of all worlds because we are neither going to fight seriously or boycott (both of which are legitimate strategies). We will fight an election that we don’t believe in with minimum effort and cost, do predictably badly and generate negative publicity. Perhaps it is not too late to get a motion into conference to avoid the almost inevitable train-wreck…….

  • Michael Felse 31st May '12 - 10:51am

    Excellent summary article by David Hennigan. As an outsider let me say my respect for the Libdems has been taken higher that my trust in Labour. One is standing by their policy against having PCCs the other was against but goes on selecting candidates. I welcome any move that shows the Labour party somewhat dishonest as we see Labour fielding candidates when they say they do not believe in the post of Police Commissioners. I would urge the LibDems to make it more public why they do not support the change, we all deep down know this change in Policing is a big wrong and costly move. But people will be asking why one part of the coalition did not block this change. Is there any answer to that and it may surprise all that I would support a block as the better solution to us having political appointed PCCs.

  • Tony Dawson 31st May '12 - 4:21pm

    @Harry Hayfield :

    “If we don’t contest a national election (which these elections are) and then ask people to vote for us at the next ones (the European Elections), what’s to stop them saying “No, you didn’t want anything to do with the police elections, so why should we believe that you want something to do with the European Elections?”

    Nothing to stop them at all, any more than there is anything to stop them commiting mass murder using teabags.: they are just as likely to say what you are suggesting in any numbers beyond those of the fingers of one hand as they are to pogo naked in their thousands down Cardiff’s main shopping street.

  • Tony Dawson 31st May '12 - 4:30pm

    @Stephen W :

    “Deliberately marginalise yourselves and you your view will be marginalised and will stay that way. And rightly so. You can’t be bothered to engage in the process then feel free to stay on the sidelines, powerless and pointless, while other people take control of our society.”

    I have a feeling that some people do not understand at all about what constitutes political marginalisation. They will likely continue in their highly-successful efforts at marginalising our party through mis-directing scarce resources in a scattergun approach.

    I shall be happy to campaign non-stop for decisions on responses to crime to be taken rationally and nationally, and implemented by professional officers, rather than have some superannuated narcissitic political blimp (of any party) playing at interfering with the process to justify stuffing their pockets with public money. I would just prefer to combine that campaigning with also encouraging people to largely-boycott these ludicrous elections, a campaign which I think we can win.

  • I agree with (I think it was) Mr Huntbach – my preference for an elected police commissioner – if we have to have them – would be someone largely outside party political hackery.

  • Agree or not this is a massive change for policing and people need to be encouraged to vote, Have a look at http://www.policecrimecommissioner.co.uk. Its run by a retired officer from Dorset and he s clearly putting in a lot of time and effort in keeping it upto date. By far the most informative and impartial website I’ve seen so far. Lists all the candidates by area as well so at least we have an idea of who may be standing in our area and what the election is all about.

  • Richard Boyd 31st May '12 - 6:36pm

    Having served as chairman of the Essex Police Authority 94-97, and seen from the inside how the supposed tripartite
    adminsitration of law and order is supposed to work and how it actually works (The Home Office is the ghost in the machine) – I share the trepidation of many that subsituting a career politician for a group of elected/appointed delegates is not a real improvement. The real issue is to compete in a flawed new process or boycott it. The latter is a non-starter ( and in this I agree with the assumed ALDC position set out by some of the contributors ) as Joe Public
    will simply take the simplistice view, supported from the national print media, that we are running away from a fight because we know we will lose. I think back on the hundreds of Lib and LD candidates who have contested unwinnable elections because they believed that our name and values should always be available to the electorate. Their layers
    of dead campaigns created the sediment upon which the eventual elections of thousands of councillors and many dozens of MP’s was achieved 30 years later. Yes, the Commissioners is a flawed concept, just as the Police Authorities were flawed, and will probably be abolished within a decade as police services merge and become sub-national. That said I believe the Party should become involved and proudly state that theTory/Lab policy is not right – as I recall we also said that a recent war was not right but did not denigrate the soldiers who were sent to fight it.

  • @Richard Boyd

    “….. Joe Public will simply take the simplistice view, supported from the national print media, that we are running away from a fight because we know we will lose.”

    Only if ‘Joe Public’ is a politician. In reality, Joe Public will largely take no interest in these elections anyway. Those who do take part will predominantly be the highly-committed politically. Our electorate are increasingly sophisticated and look at elections one at a time (If they didn’t do this, our Parliament would be full of UKIP MPs). I can see that there are places (Essex probably being one) where it might seem sensible for a Lib Dem to stand in these elections.

  • @Richard Boyd – I am grateful for your comment. You are the first person who has really put forward a decent set of reasons for us to participate (other than the reflexive, we must always stand approach). As I understand it, you are saying that standing and losing has helped create the groundwork for the councillors and MPs we have today. I don’t disagree but that was based on fighting and losing campaigns in people’s local communities on issues that matter to them. That doesn’ t apply here (obviously, crime matters to people but the PCC’s role is resolving that is going to be much less than a local council).

    You also say Joe Public may conclude that we are running away from a fight that we are going to lose. True enough but Joe Public may still think that is a more sensible approach than standing and fighting, particularly when Joe Public is also likely to conclude and vote with their feet on the following.

    1. I don’t understand the purpose of the PCC.
    2. It looks like another comfortable sinecure for elected politicians (particularly of the two main parties).
    3. I really can’t be bothered voting in this election especially as it is in the middle of November.

    There is a profoundly anti-politics mood out there in the country and whilst I personally feel sad about this, I think they have a point as far as PCCs go. Why not align ourselves with the public mood for once, particularly as there are good reasons to do so?

    Finally, it would be a marvellous opportunity to go around the country “stirring up apathy”….

  • Richard Boyd 1st Jun '12 - 12:10pm

    MarkG I am flattered that you read my comments, and agree with your fundamental concept that Joe Public does not understand the complexities of policing by consent or of supervision of the Home Office and career police officers. If we do not agree with the Commissioners concept and have not an audience that is engaged enough to read and consider the alternatives, then an elegant solution is to stand as the voice of “No” and give voters an alternative to either spoiling their ballot paper (few will) or abstaining/not bothering (the current option)
    We will not win but the oppostion to the commissioner concept will be quantifiable by voting for the LD cnadidate. Just a thought!

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