PCCs and the democratic deficit


Some count centres reported having empty ballot boxes

And so the inquest begins. Why were the people of England and Wales so emphatically indifferent to being given the power to elect their police and crime commissioners (PCC)?

There will be arguments about the wisdom of holding an election in November, the lack of information, the fact that many details were only available online, concerns about politicisation of the police, the vast constituencies, the shortage of high-profile candidates and on and on.

Those were contributory factors, but I suspect the real flaw was something more fundamental - the voters were never persuaded they needed an elected police and crime commissioner.

The creation of PCCs was the centrepiece of Conservative proposals to reform the police in England and Wales. "Giving people democratic control over policing priorities is a huge step forward in empowering communities," the party manifesto claimed in 2010.

The coalition's Programme for Government retained the idea, arguing for radical reform of the criminal justice system, with directly elected individuals to make the police "much more accountable to the public they serve".

Start Quote

It's an American idea - they even vote for their sewage man”

End Quote

Earlier this year I met Gordon Wasserman, now Lord Wasserman, who was the architect of the Conservative party's PCC policy. A Canadian by birth, it was his experience of US law enforcement, particularly in New York and Philadelphia, which shaped his ideas.

"I want people to see their police commissioner in the street and say 'Hi Commissioner! How are you doing?'" he told me. When I suggested to him that this sounded rather un-British behaviour and that most people wouldn't even recognise their MP or council leader in the street, Lord Wasserman dismissed my scepticism.

However, I had reason to recall our conversation when I was in Lancashire recently, talking to local people about the PCC elections. "It's an American idea," one man told me. "Over there they vote for everything. They even vote for their sewage man. We don't do that here."

There is a perfectly good case to be made for greater accountability of the police.

The old police authorities were, in some cases, less than inspiring - "unaccountable and invisible" as the 2010 Tory manifesto put it.

Recent allegations of police corruption and institutional cover-up help make a case for more scrutiny, and all three major political parties at Westminster have talked about a need for reform of police governance.

David Cameron delivers election leaflets to support the Tory party's candidate for Avon and Somerset police and crime commissioner David Cameron out leafleting for the PCC elections

One can understand how some policy wonks and politicians became enthusiasts for extending democracy into policing - part of a wider agenda of community empowerment, localism and transparent governance.

Start Quote

I want people to see their police commissioner in the street and say 'Hi Commissioner! How are you doing?'”

End Quote Lord Wasserman, architect of the PCC policy

But it was a vision that never really escaped the rarefied world of Westminster think tanks. The public were not excited by the language of democratic empowerment - they were much more interested in someone stopping kids creating mischief and local dogs turning pavements into obstacle courses.

With both recorded crime and people's experience of crime and anti-social behaviour at their lowest levels in decades, the issue has slipped down the list of public concerns. Confidence in how the police are doing their job has been rising in recent years - the latest official figures suggest 62% of people agree with the statement "police and local councils are dealing with the crime issues that matter in the local area", up from 57%.

Neighbourhood policing has been a great success in most areas and there seems little evidence of profound frustration that police priorities are seriously awry.

As a consequence, getting the public out to vote for a highly-paid and relatively remote politician, to tackle a democratic deficit they weren't persuaded they had, was always going to be a hard sell.

It wasn't just that the weather was a bit chilly or that the candidates all seemed to be saying the same thing. It was that the electorate had not been convinced there was a need to change the system.

As a man in Lancashire put it to me: "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The weather didn't cause the extremely low turnout Politicians got this wrong big time... As far as I can see all the indicators and signals over the past few months showed that the public just weren't interested in this yet the government ignored it and went ahead anyway...

    The public verdict a 10 -20% turnout they can't say they weren't warned

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Mark, people have had a local say on policing for several years via Community Forums! Local say is a red herring.
    The fact is, policing is measured on the absence of crime and disorder. If people are happy, they don't need to know or influence the police. The PCC meets one objective. To absolve the Home Office, the PM and all MP's of responsibility, yet with party candidates they keep control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I live in the Thames Valley area and we received absolutely no information whatsoever about any candidates. Complete farce. How on earth are we supposed to decide? I did not vote because I had not been approached by the candidates, not because of apathy, weather etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I don't think poor turn out is a hard to explain
    - No readily-accessible information on what the candidates stood for, and most statements were pretty similar
    - In the abscence of being able to differentiate the individuals, there has been no compelling case made as to why you should vote on political lines - suspect that many people actively want to avoid politicalisation of the police.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    the new police commissioners that nobody can be bothered voting for will be earning anything up to £100,000 per annum. In an era of major state cutbacks in the force do we need someone paid this amount every year when the cost of their wage and the organising of the election could be put into putting more police on the street, and they wonder why no one turned out

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Given this was a central piece of theTory manifesto, let them try in future to argue the point that unions are taking prospective strike action on a very low turn out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I voted yesterday in spite of not wanting an elected PCC. In Lincolnshire we had 4 candidates, 2 of which were politicians (the Liberals didn't even put up a candidate!) and 2 independents, and I wanted to make my view clear that I did not want politics in policing. As an aside with such dismal turnout, why are we still waiting for our results??.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    NOT apathy! How do you vote for someone on the basis that you are told he 'likes golf'? [Oh don't tell me the answer, golfers!] Seriously: apart from that sort of detail, all I heard of one candidate was that he didn't answer whether he favoured police privatisation. Some others answered the question OVER-carefully.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Yes, agree with Mark's key point - people (including me) didn't vote because we didn't want anyone as a PCC.

    Once again, this government comes across as out of touch with ordinary people.

    Millions of pounds wasted on elections and highly paid jobs no one wanted, needed or asked for - at a time when real services, like the police, are being cut because we are told there is no money..

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    The turnout would have been far higher if there had been a box saying "No Police Commissioner, keep the Police Authority". I would have been one of many people to turn up and cross that box, and would have actively encouraged others to do so. Is anyone researching why people did or didn't vote - I suspect many people, like me boycotted it because we didn't want this farce legitimized by turnout.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    this was an expensive waste of time, the old system while far from perfect suited us, can you imagine going up to your commissioner and saying "HI Comissioner"...... not British! cheaper and more simple would have been making the old police authority's more democratic and thus accountable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    In my area there was just 2 candidates one labour one conservative across a very large geographically area, next to no chance of ever meeting whoever gets elected and both appeared to want same thing I don't care who wins as neither seem suitable for the job - wish we had some indepdendants might have given me a real choice and been worth a vote

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Have you seen the number of failed e-petitions for 'none of the above' on the No10 site? No wonder the status quo will remain and politicians laugh at us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I didn't vote because I don't want elected PCCs. It had nothing to do with indifference or the weather, and I suspect many others were the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The low turnout is a reflection of the general disengagment with a not fit for purpose electoral system.These should have been independent commissioners not party hacks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Every democracy relies on delegated decision making and appointed decision makers. It's simply silly to imagine you can elect everyone and vote on everything. Police governance may not be perfect (nothing is) but, basing it on party politics and creating potential policy conflict where there was none before is daft. I couldn't bring myself to vote and help legitimise this crack-brained idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I've heard pundits on the radio saying we didn't vote 'because it was foggy'. That is an insult to the thousands of people who normally do vote. Put a 'none of the above option' on the ballot paper and I bet voter turn out would shoot up. Not voting is not the same as not caring, it's just that we don't care for any of the options available and we have NO WAY of making that clear on voting forms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    yet again the tories claim they want to remove middle managemet yet make more jobs for their mates and the BBC ignore the will of the people and mods remove their voice

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Given the lack of interest and the overwhelming explanation for it, surely, in view of this being a new 'initiative', one of the options should have been to vote for 'no PCC'. Now that would have been a truly democratic event.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    the police is institutionally corrupt, why would people bother voting on this?


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