By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics
The overwhelming theme that emerged from the Police and Crime Commissioner elections held on 15 November is that you can never underestimate the power of government to take a decent enough idea and then successfully flush it down the toilet. Opinion was always divided on whether the Conservative’s policy on ‘democratising’ the scrutiny of the police services in England and Wales was a good one, but what is clear – and was clear throughout the process – is that if you want your policy to be successful, you have to pay attention to some key things.
First, don’t hold elections in November. It’s just a bad idea, and turnout suffers. No one really wants to have to venture out to vote when it’s dark. Or talk to canvassers and candidates in the dark either. That’s gruelling enough even in daylight.
Second, it helps if voters actually understand what you want them to vote for or against. It’s far from clear that people have fully appreciated what the new commissioners will do, what powers they will have, and what their relationship to police forces and chief constables will be. And that’s not to insinuate that voters are stupid (they’re not) – it’s a complex new role and there are many unanswered questions about it. The reliance on web-based candidate information, in order to save money, has been to the detriment of those who don’t have internet access, particularly older people. And even those who did have internet access weren’t guaranteed to find the necessary information quickly anyway.
Third, and leading on from the last point, you need to make sure that candidates for your shiny new elected positions actually understand what would be required of them if they win at the polls. Anecdotal evidence from even the briefest of glances at candidate statements, and comments in hustings, suggests concerns about how some of them interpreted the role they were campaigning to fulfil. And even where there isn’t necessarily controversy, the repeated references made by many candidates to ‘community policing as a priority’ rendered this an empty concept. Despite candidate claims across the board regarding their experience and suitability, it’s not altogether clear that most of them actually did have the necessary expertise to carry out this incredibly sensitive and difficult role.
Fourth, a glance at the candidate lists indicates a remarkable number of party political has-beens and also-rans made it onto the ballot paper, which isn’t entirely surprising if you’re cynical, but which does prompt questions about the kinds of people this role needs to attract to be successful long term.
Finally, if you create a significant new elected position with meaningful powers and resources, then you need to stand by your plan. The government said surprisingly little about the importance of commissioners in the run-up, no doubt leading many to question just how much of a priority this is.
Looking ahead, it’s clear that the democratic legitimacy that these commissioners were supposed to draw on in order to fulfil their roles may now be difficult to harness, and it remains to be seen how police chiefs will react to policing plans and budgets written by commissioners who hardly anyone voted for, particularly if those plans and budgets conflict with what chief constables think is right. The government has already said that turnout will increase next time around, and perhaps it will. But for now, low turnout may impact on the capacity for action of these commissioners in interesting ways that might be worth watching, if for all the wrong reasons.