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 76.

    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)?

    +Because the biased quango from hell did not do its job properly & inform licence payers of the candidates & their details

    Instead, the biased quango wastes OUR money on eg asian network & blocking the Balen report

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I actvely decided not to vote as a protest.The numbers suggest many other also did so, perhaps more than voted. I lived in the USA for some time and electing this sort of officials causes distorted priorities for political gain, increased risk of corruption, conflicts of interest and an unprofessional approach.

    The appalling turn out shows a strong majority against. It shoudl be abandoned

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I thought the conservatives where focused on cutting governmental control on local issues... Surely this is doing the exact opposite? I think what that actually intend doing is removing government controls that do not suit them and adding controls that do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    It is a great shame that the British public are so opposed to the idea of an extension of democracy and greater accoutnability of public servants.
    Both are badly needed. Yes it would be better if candidates had not come from political parties but the current system is not apolitical either and at least the PCCs are electable. You get the democracy and freedom you deserve in the end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Not just the PCC elections, the turnout at the Manchester Central by-election was the lowest in a by-election since WWII.

    In reality it has little to do with policing and more to do with the fact the public are turning away from the democratic process in this country.

    This is probably due to the fact that the professional politicians are totally unrepresentative of the electorate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    PCCs will be scrutinised by Police and Crime Panels who, surprise surprise, will not be elected and so no doubt will consist of the usual local suspects who may or may not agree politically with the local PCC and, having no responsibility for action, can be as damming and negative as they like in publicising how they see the actions of the PCC. Total mess in the making.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I turned out. The idea was a good one - outside expertise, challenge, local priorities, joining up police with wider crime, criminal justice and social agendas. The choice was dismal though - major political parties, ex-Police Authority or, worse, ex-Police Officers. I put all of this on my ballot paper - no-one will read it but it made me feel better. Spoilt ballot paper = 1 vote at least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    The word democratic has no place in this debate. The policy was forced through Parliament with little to no debate. The public were sold the idea of independent PCCs but found only party candidates at the ballet box. Politicians are already claiming that the low turn-out doesn't matter and that they will press on anyway.

    I do not recognise these results.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Why indifferent? Because many simply distrust the Government. The absence of candidate information and the financial inability of true independents to campaign renders this whole effort anything but democratic and feels like the electorate is being manipulated. And the tone of Damian Green's responses don't really help to dispel that impression.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Your local MP doesn't reflect your view or the views of their constituents on the real issues, they tow the party line or else they get 'whipped' and pressure applied to keep them in check.

    Expect the same with your new PCC's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    On principle I didn't vote.

    The principle that Policing should reflect the rule of law, not party politics.

    Enough said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Just another party placeman to vote for - why bother. If a party supports/pays for a candidate, then they're going to follow the party line. In my area we had two candidates - one Labour one Tory. They might as well ask us to choose between a Poke in the Eye and a Kick in the crotch, then they wonder why nobody votes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    This isn't about giving power to the people, its more about dodging accountability. How long before the Home Sec. points to these farcical commissioners when asked about rising crime? It would have been far cheaper, and far more democratic for the Home Sec to appoint commisioners to report to her. We the electorate could then properly hold her and the Government to account.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    The low turn out is because the concept is American and bears no relevance for the UK. The salary £80k+ is insulting and a waste of public money. The quality of candidates in W Yorkshire was appalling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I didn't vote because my preferred candidate was obliged to, er, 'step aside' as the Beeb puts it, for a juvenile misdemeanour committed at age 14. So decades of military and public service are set at nought. As for the rest, my PFI loving ex-MP amongst them, they can manage without my vote. As far as I'm concerned let the police vote, in force as it were, for whom they want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Low turnout because :
    1) Voter turnout is always low in poor weather (cold & wet yesterday meant many potential voters stayed at home).
    2) Advertising the elections was lacklustre at best. The occasional TV advert was pretty much it.
    3) Lack of knowledge regarding the candidates. Even the BBC local sites had one line on the candidate and one on their policy pledges. Not enough

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Vote on PCC's - not interested, but we get forced one anyway. And we get PCC's whether want them or not.

    Vote on EU membership - very interested, but not happening. Whether we want to be or not.

    Talk about out of touch...

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    This is one vote where low turn out cannot be blamed on apathy - it's clear from comments here and feedback given to reporters that people actively chose not to vote or spoil their ballot papers because they DO NOT WANT this ridiculous system!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    There's been no effective process to communicate what these posts do, what they don't do, and what the relevent criteria for selection should be. I don't understand these elections- seems to me that there are some interested people who just want them and the positions to fail. I'd support directly elected police chiefs from outside the force as an alternative to this pathetic half-way-house.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    My Tory candidate wanted less waste, my Labour candidate wanted more funding. Very oversimplified versions of party policy I know, but that was basically what they were selling themselves on. Its two sides of the same coin, in other words it wasn't a choice at all. As long as the police catch criminals what's the point? And they seemed to be doing just fine without PCC's anyhow.


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