Manchester faces a difficult choice in November and, from the conversations we have been having with voters, most of us are confused or will simply avoid it. On the 15th we will be asked to make a decision about who to elect as Police and Crime Commissioner, a new post brought in by the coalition government and opposed by Labour, that is claimed will make the police more accountable to the people.
Lets assume firstly that this is about democracy and accountability…
To even stand in this election, a candidate has to raise £5,000, that puts an awfully large number of people out of contention. Who has £5000 to throw around like that? To put a leaflet through every door is going to cost many times that again. So that could mean £45,000 just to run an absolute minimal campaign, without anyone really knowing who you are or what you stand for.
So democratically that locks most candidates out, and it also prevents people from really knowing what options they have. Sure, if you have the money you might be able to make a dent. Oh, and unlike a councillor or even an MP, where you may be known in your local community and have a decent local profile, the areas that these elections cover mean that it probably wont matter. So it isn’t about democracy at all.
The advantages are then all essentially given to political parties, well, large political parties and people with large personal incomes. You could argue that it’s also open to people with a lot of local support, but look at the schemes that do have local support (including schools and such) they can’t easily raise £15,000 because no-one has the money at the moment.
Not only are the advantages in campaign terms on the side of the parties, they also have the name recognition and, importantly, often a block of people who would vote for their party regardless of the candidate. That creates a large base-line to beat that has little to do with what people actually want.
So on to accountability. The PCC post itself is one that comes with some significant powers. No doubt a politically astute or ambitious commissioner will be able to make it very much their own and so appear somewhat accountable. Of course even at the best of times they don’t control the law, and they don’t control the budgets that they have (so central government cuts will still be an issue). All they can do is move money around a bit.
We have had direct accountability in the form of neighbourhood policing priorities through NPT teams for quite some time (well, for people who turned up to the meetings) and anyone who has sat through a few of those will know that even in that forum, priorities can only really be shifted so much. That’s all fine of course, we don’t want the police to only act on the basis of groups of people who have the time to attend meetings, but do we really want them to now have a conflict of local and party political priorities?
The one thing we can guarantee is that whilst commissioners are supposed to be apolitical, they won’t be. They certainly won’t be when elections are running and I can’t see them sticking to the rules when in office. Even if they do, their parties won’t and nor will the opposition. The police will suddenly go from being state actors with some government influence, to being working at least partially on behalf of a Tory or Labour commissioner as well. That doesn’t seem right. It puts the police in an odd position and it puts us all in a strange position when we make decisions too. Did a police failure stem from the police, the law, central government funding and policy or the local commissioner? Who do we hold to account?
About the only group that wins here is the government in power. Where there are failings they can dismiss them as a local force issue, if the commissioner is from a non-government party then they can blame the party too. If an area is successful they can still claim all the credit, if the local commissioner is from a government party then doubly so.
Personally I don’t like the politicisation of the police, and this is just that. I don’t want to emulate the US and elect police chiefs or commissioners, I don’t want to elect judges or Sheriffs, I don’t think it helps to have popular opinion involved in how the executive aspect of the law works. We have popular control over government, we don’t need to dilute that with Police Commissioners.
As to the way to respond to a vote if you don’t like the idea, I’ve been agonising over it. My usual stance is if you can’t vote, stand. In this case that isn’t really possible. If you don’t vote you don’t have a voice though.
On spoiling your ballot paper, well you could do that, but having attended a number of counts now, it’s often hard to tell whether you did it on purpose and the only people who are going to even notice are those counting the papers and the candidates. It probably won’t really help.
The best thing that I can recommend if you are in doubt about this whole idea is to vote for the Pirate Party in the Manchester Central by-election. We have been clear all along about the dangers of the Police Commissioner elections, and would remove this expensive post. We have not hedged our bets like Labour or the Liberal Democrats by criticising and standing anyway. The safety of our communities should not be divorced from a broader vision how our neighbourhoods work; regeneration, street-lighting, bringing life in to our city.