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, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    A lot of people seem to think that policing is currently 'apolitical', when police authorities are full of appointed (not elected) politicians. At least the PCC would be elected rather than appointed, even if still a politician.

    The BBC should have put more effort into explaining the purpose of the elections and, doing things like having televised debates between the candidates etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Do all the posts here get through to policians who so like to talk about democracy? If so, note that overwhelmingly the comments point out the many faults in the new scheme. Will we see a reversal? Sadly I doubt it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    I voted. I wrote 'Keep politics out of policing.' across my ballot paper.

    Patronising prats like Green will try to write off non-voters as apathetic and ballot-spoilers like me as 'confused'. I was neither. spoiling my ballot was the only way open to me to reject this idea.

    The Condems are destroying the police and putting up PCCs to take the flak.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    People elected on such tiny turnouts have no legitimacy at all, no mandate to run a whelk stall, let alone a police force. If they had any sense of honour and decency they would recognise the fact and resign immediately - all of them. They won't though - they're just more bloody politicians. I can feel nothing but despair and disgust at the whole business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    I voted. I spoiled my paper with the word "Pointless".

    Next time this comes up I encourage you all to vote, and spoil the paper to help show the MPs who would want to claim otherwise that us folks are aware of the choice and aren't put off by the fact it's a bit cold but are giving a clear signal that this is, umm, pointless.

    (Spend the money on more police!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    My own impression is that the public are turning away not from democracy but from any notion that the police can be collectively changed for the better. Too many cover-ups, too much wrongdoing, too many police and ex-police scratching one another's' backs. The admiration and respect we had for our police in our childhood has been replaced by cynicism, scepticism and resignation in old age.

  • Comment number 90.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I wasn't indifferent, I abstained. I do NOT want political parties controlling my police force.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    We've now reached a stage where any idea put forward by politicians will be regarded with the utmost suspicion, and, given their record of untrustworthiness, rightly so. The PCC is a good idea in principle, where it not for the feeling that it will somehow extend Parliament's influence rather than the voters'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    If that twit Cameron thinks I'm going to vote another money grabbing untrustworthy prat to the gravy train he can think again!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Nobody asked for an elected PCC and as far as I can tell, nobody really wants an elected PCC. I was happy with the existing system.

    Seeing as I wasn't offered a choice to keep the status quo, I cast a blank vote. But politicians should not dismiss this as mere apathy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I did not vote because I feel very strongly that the Police Force should be independant from the Political system with the constant need for sound bites, headlines and populus tinkering. The rule of law should be independant and above this. This important job should be undertaken by someone suitably qualified and experience - not a parachuted in politician after a political leg up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Next we will be voting for the milkman.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I am NOT indifferent; I am just furious with the system. And I guess that I am not the only one. This scheme has been imposed upon us by politicians seeking to feather their own nests. Many of the electorate are totally fed up with the professional politicians who have never done a proper job in their lives. The sooner political parties are banned the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    @18, if you had added none of the above and put a cross against that it wouldn't have been considered a mistake.

    I think the reason they are taking so long to return these votes is the problem in finding unspoiled ballots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    1 I have no idea who the cadidats are. None has seen fit to send me any information.
    2 I have no vote because in my area the Blue party will always win.
    3 Why should I be interested in another job for the boys? I disagree strongly with the politicising of the police force. How long before Orwell's vision is true?
    4 I no longer consider I live in a democracy so why vote?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The real problem is far simpler : We were not asked about whether we wanted one first because it seems when politicians decide we are allowed to choose they only do so if the result is likely to be in line with the one they want. Cameron failed with mayors and so did not bother even asking, the police minister should resign - because he now has no job and when he did he failed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    We ought to view the PCC elections in the same way that we view elections abroad - especially in third world countries. If an election in any other country had only achieved an18% turnout and the winner had been elected by 10% of the electorate, we (especially the media) would have insisted that the vote was totally undemocratic. Should we not see the PCC elections in the same way??

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I didn't vote and like so many others are insulted by the fact that the government puts it down to apathy. I certainly do care. I have serious concerns about the need for a PCC. The cost of the election. The ability of the candidates. There will no doubt be an empire built up to support the PCC to enable him to carry out his duties, and at what cost.
    Our Government is so out of touch with reality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Folks, do you realise that Theresa May, Damien Green, and David Cameron can no longer be held accountable for Policing? They will blame all faults on your PCC, yet retain control via the "party whip". They will claim all good news for the next general election, and any bad on the PCC. They and your MP cannot lose! That is why they wanted this, even if we didn't.


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