Today the 41 new Police and Crime Commissioners began their first day in the job, although for most it remains unclear exactly what they are going to be doing.
For more than a quarter it seems that their first task will be to recruit new Chief Constables after many have stepped down – in some cases because they did not want to serve under a Commissioner. One previous Chief Constable of the Gloucestershire force, Tony Melville, resigned citing “grave concerns” over PCCs, saying he would rather stand aside than be governed by a Commissioner.
As much as the police did not want PCCs, neither did the public. The elections recorded an historically low turnout of less than 15% nationwide, with one polling station in Newport registering an appalling 0% turnout. Many people chose not to vote in the elections because they did not know enough about the role of the Police Commissioners, because they had received no information from any of the political parties, because they did not understand what the election was about, or because they did not agree with the idea of politicising the police.
The turnout was so low that the legitimacy of PCCs is now being called into question by many, and the Electoral Commission is launching an investigation into the process. Chairwoman Jenny Watson said that; “the government took a number of decisions about how to run these elections that we did not agree with”, and will present her findings to Parliament early next year.
Yet, despite the opposition by senior police officers, criticism from the Electoral Commission, and the humiliating rejection by the electorate, the coalition Government has still failed to accept responsibility for their misguided policy. Downing Street has tried to lay the blame at the feet of the media for not giving enough coverage to the elections, and Prime Minister David Cameron alluded to the idea that voters were not fully capable of grasping the concept, saying: “it takes time to explain a new post” – if that is truly the case, then should he not have started explaining sooner?
When Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was asked in Parliament this week whether the money would have been better spent on 3000 frontline police officers, he evaded the question (in typical Lib Dem fashion), refusing to admit that the £100,000 that the elections cost could have been better spent elsewhere.
Instead he asked why Labour had stood candidates given the fact that they opposed the policy (the fact that his own party also opposed PCCs yet chose to stand candidates was seemingly irrelevant). The answer is simple – Labour opposed the idea because the politicisation of the police is dangerous, but as it has been forced upon us, it is absolutely imperative that we have the right people in charge.
Last week 11 Independents were elected (although one later turned out to be a member of the Liberal Democrats, who was understandably too embarrassed to stand as such.) One of these Independent candidates was elected with just 22% of the vote, as was one of the Conservative PCCs. With such low levels of voter engagement – reflected in the abysmal turnout – the chance of an extremist candidate being elected was very real, and as well Mr. Clegg knows, that is exactly why the Labour Party had no choice but to stand candidates.
So while I am very glad that Tony Lloyd was elected in Manchester, and wish him every success in the role, and while I agree that standing Labour candidates in these elections was absolutely the right thing to do, I, like the electorate, do not endorse the idea of Police and Crime Commissioners. Surely now that the idea has been so unequivocally rejected by the public, the time has come for the Government to admit their mistake?