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 136.

    The turnout may be low but it still hasn't stopped the ideologically brainwashed from voting for Labour and Conservative.

    Sadly another election where my vote hasn't counted.

    Oh well back to getting on with life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Yes: not apathy, not laziness, but I did not vote because I was opposed to the idea of police commissioners. Unlike city mayors we not given the chance to vote for this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    One of the reasons that I spoiled my ballot was the dreadful paucity of talent amongst the candidates for the post. They seemed lacking in their election addresses and when they appeared on TV I was convinced that not one of them was suitable for the post. In industry given a choice of candidates like this I would dismiss the lot of them fire the recruiters and send for new applicants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    An elected Commissioner is likely to focus on popular / special interest issues, neglecting other areas of policing. A party political Commissioner is also likely to follow Party lines.
    I disagree with former police officers becoming Commissioners, and hold the Police to account. I don't see how this bias would enable them to openly hold them to account, especially in the wake of recent scandals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Ignoring democracy is the price we payof having a democratic choice as a right to vote or not to vote.
    No one who hasn't voted as any claim to complaining the vote is too low.
    That should be clear even for the biased BBC who did not promote the elections out of their institutional & entrenched 'EU-fasci-crat', left - wing bias.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Might have saved themselves a lot of time, trouble and money asking if it was something the public wanted in the first instance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    I didn't vote as I was unaware of it taking place until it was too late. I did not receive any information through the post. It didn't get a mention in the local press or their websites.


    Accusing the public of apathy is lazy "politics" used by the pigs with their snouts in the trough. We need LESS politicians, not more - even these new pretend policemen

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Scrapping of Welsh papers cost £350 000.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    #99 - and if it been trialed in London first you'd have complained that the rest of the country was being excluded (as usual).....

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    I find the whole notion bizarre. How can someone with no prior policing experience suddenly be given a fat salary and put in charge of the sercurity of large swathes of the public? Its ridiculous. I wasn't aware that there was a major problem with the exisiting system. To my mind there are plenty of other issues that I would much rather the government spent their time and our money addressing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    What a waste of money in times of need. The money spent on this election and the salaries of the postholders could add more PCs on the beat.

    I find it very unlikely that the British people will warm to these new jobs, as Damian Green and the PM are claiming.

    Will we find out how many ballots were spoiled?

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I am not sure whether we need elected police commissioners. I am completely sure that they should not stand for election under tribal party-political banners. Therefore I did not vote. What next? UKIP Dentists? Conservative GPs? Labour Solicitors? Green Party Teachers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    This is just a British thing - we are naturally sceptical. Give it a few more years and the turnout will rocket once people realise the importance of electing Police Commissioners. In my mind electing a PC is more important and relevant than electing an MP, because his/her decisions will affect me more directly and instantly than an MP who votes for his/her party in parliament regardless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    This farce cost us £130 million
    It was delayed for twelve months costing a further £25million.
    The clowns had to scrap the Welsh ballot paperts when they were printed in English only, cost £350.00. All details available on internet.
    So how long do we allow this waste to go on. Governments must be held more accountable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    If there was a genuine need to change from the existing Police Authorities, it would have been better to create something akin to school governing bodies to do the job... and the PCC elections have been flawed by making it too expensive to stand and permitting people to stand as members of a political party. The candidate apathy was just the final straw: how can I vote when they fail to campaign?

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    I am did not vote - I knew nothing about the people concerned but I was aware that this is a Political move on behalf of a Government that does not accept its responsibility in all Local fields of Government. I am also against what is obviously Political and a desire to fill our Police Force with Political minded people at the top. I should have done what my friends did a spoilt vote

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Will pundits stop saying I am indifferent because I didn't vote.

    I actively didn't vote. No jobs for the (political) boys.

    I used to argue for spoiling your ballot paper but that is pointless. The numbers are never reported. The day they read out the spoilt votes with the rest, is the day I will consider using that option. Until then a low turn out shows what people think. No to elected PCCs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Free speech is alive and well, just not here...

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Mine was not a case of apathy. I took an active decision not to participate in a process that I do not believe advances democracy or the accountability and independence of policing. I have voted in every local, national, European election and referendum since the age of 18. Would the politicians please stop making excuses and recognise that this was not a vote that the public wanted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I spoiled my ballot paper yesterday in this silly pointless poll. The politicalisation of police "Commissars" is" beneath contempt. We as voters had a "Party List" to choose from independents were discouraged to stand due to the very high deposits required. Also no financial help was given with mail shots. Consequently only party has-beens and passed over former MP's stood-----a total disgrace.


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