Friday, 9 November 2012

Police and Crime Commissioners - a bad idea, but vote anyway

Next week, we will be asked to go to the polls to elect 41 new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Optimistic commentators are predicting a turnout of 20%, or even less.

Until the last few days, there has been little or no publicity given to these new jobs, so I thought I’d share my thoughts about why I think it’s a very bad idea, but why I still think we should all vote.

A deeply flawed concept…

On the face of it, it’s an attractive idea to abolish ‘bureaucratic’ police committees and replace them with one person who is directly accountable to the electorate. However, there are several reasons why this is not the case.

The current system is more democratic. Police Authorities (in my case the Greater Manchester Police Authority) is made up from councillors drawn from across the area and representing all political parties. The interests of different areas (e.g. Oldham and Manchester) are therefore represented. In future a single person, the PCC, will have the powers currently vested in those committees and will be expected to represent the views of the entire police force area, however diverse that might be. This is a retrograde step.

The PCCs will be politicians, whatever they say to the contrary. There has been much comment on the lack of high calibre candidates for these roles. The Lib-Dems, for example, are only fielding 24 candidates, and a quick glance down the lists of those standing reveals a large number of has-been and never-quite-were politicians. Some candidates are ex cops, or former army officers, who will no doubt say they are apolitical, but that’s rubbish. Once someone stands for election, and is put in charge of a multi-million pound budget, they are by definition politicians, so let’s not kid ourselves.

We are told that the PCCs will only concern themselves with strategy and will stay away from operational issues. Now, I’ve nothing against politicians per se, but I worked closely with them for nearly all of my working life, and I never met one who wasn’t primarily motivated by keeping the position they held and getting re-elected. There is no way that these politicians will not seek to influence strategy, budget priorities and operations in ways that enhance their popularity and re-electability. That will happen, it’s just a fact of political life. I’m not saying they will do anything improper, of course, but look at national and local  politicians and try to find one that doesn’t seek to benefit the people who vote for them. [I’m excluding from this argument the Lib Dem’s disgraceful volte-face on tuition fees which has alienated the entire student vote.]

The 192 candidates are not representative. I don’t have ethnicity figures, but 82% are male according to the ACPO website. I’d be willing to bet that very few are from minority ethnic communities. Given that these ‘stale, male and pale’ (according to Vera Baird QC, a Labour candidate)  PCCs will have the power to appoint Chief Constables and other very senior ranks, can we imagine that those appointments will improve diversity at the top of police forces? Can we imagine either that PCCs will appoint candidates who they know are going to disagree with them and hold very different views? I, for one, don’t want to see a series of yes-men, or women, appointed to run police forces.

But Vote Anyway…

So if PCCs are such a bad idea – and as I hope I’ve made it clear I think it is – why should you bother to vote? I’ve struggled with this question myself, and I think there are two main reasons.

Firstly, as a matter of principle I believe tha taking part in any election is a civic duty, part of the responsibilities we have as members of a democratic society.

Secondly, whether we vote or not, someone will get elected. Although the BNP decided at the last minute to boycott the elections, UKIP is fielding a significant number of candidates, including in Greater Manchester, and there are several ‘English Democrat’ candidates. I don’t know anything about the independents. The fewer people that vote, the greater the chances that an extremist candidate will be elected, and I don’t think anyone sensible would want that.

So there you are. A deeply flawed concept, destined, I believe, to fail. But it’s going to happen, so please take the trouble to vote.