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
    +64

    Comment number 2.

    For me the issue was political parties standing for the PCC role - the running of the police should be independent of party politics.

  • rate this
    +56

    Comment number 28.

    Whilst I agree with the general sentiment of the article I would suggest that the public position is even more negative. It's not that people need to be persauding that a PCC is a good idea. It is more that they have made up their mind that they do not want political interference in law enforcement.

    That is my position & I chose to spoil my ballot to give that message.

  • rate this
    +48

    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
    +48

    Comment number 27.

    Political dogma and the need to follow the American model have been the drivers for this ill-conceived and badly implemented initiative. Well, the electorate were not convinced of a need for change and nobody listened to them anyway. Apathy, weather, time of year ? NO. There was no means of communicating NO. There is no democratic mandate for this to proceed.

  • rate this
    +39

    Comment number 13.

    "the voters were never persuaded they needed an elected police and crime commissioner."
    That sums it up. I didn't vote. Not because of apathy but because I actively chose not to vote for something I firmly didn't believe should be happening. In these times, paying such a huge amount of money for something it is obvious the majority of people don't care about, seems somehow obscene.

 

Comments 5 of 456

 

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