In a few days’ time, electors all over England will go to the polls to select Police and Crime Commissioners. All the signs are that the turnout will be very small indeed, and there is little evidence that participants have been able to generate any real enthusiasm.
One of the reasons is that nobody really believes that these elections matter. The Coalition’s line that these elections will make policing more democratic and accountable is not believed – with good reason, because it is palpably not true. Local police authorities are obviously not directly elected, but are representative; they include local politicians, practitioners and lay individuals who can set priorities and hold police forces to account. The idea that instead you vest those powers in a Commissioner – directly elected but a sort of corporate chief executive who will appoint and sit alongside the Chief Constable – is actually profoundly anti-democratic if you believe that democracy is a process in which elections are an obviously essential part, but far from being the whole story. It fits much more closely with a model of localism promoted by the coalition in which local authorities and local democratic representation becomes simply a decision about who commissions services from the private sector, using budgets set by Whitehall. The point of PCCs appears to be to substitute managerialism for democratic accountability, and to streamline the imposition of central Government cuts in policing on local police forces.
And this is what makes some of the rhetoric about the PCC elections so ironic. Many of those who are advocating abstention – or even spoiling ballot papers – are arguing that they want to take the politics out of policing. But the point is surely that this is exactly what the PCC wheeze threatens to achieve, and by walking away from the electoral process critics are helping to undermine further the role of local political debate about policing and crime.
At one level, critics do have a point. The way in which the elections are run – £10,000 deposit, no free candidates’ mailshot – puts huge barriers in the way of independent and small-party candidates, before you even consider the size of the electorates (Sussex, where I live, has an electorate of more than 1.5 million). In other words, these elections are inevitably going to be fought between large parties who have the necessary resources and organisation in place. Independent candidates will need a deep pocket or well-heeled backers to get anywhere near a candidacy.
But they appear to ignore a key issue. Policing and crime are political. It’s not just the fact that the burden of crime falls overwhelmingly on the poor and vulnerable – in a way that is unrecognisable from the tabloid rhetoric designed to terrify the middle classes into buying newspapers. Crime levels are powerfully driven by levels of deprivation; the way in which resources are disposed to prevent and deal with crime involves difficult decisions which recognise those factors – like how far do you prioritise enforcement of minor drugs offences. As resources are taken away the political nature of decisions to allocate resources in a certain way will become all the starker. High-profile policing issues here in Brighton involve how to manage marches by the EDL; how to manage protests at EDO; the role and remit of Police Liaison Officers; how to deal with possession of small amounts of cannabis; how to enforce 20mph speed limits being rolled out across the city; how to manage the criminalisation of squatting. These are all political issues which ultimately involve resourcing decisions involving the PCC.
And certainly here in Sussex the only alternative to the main parties appears to be an independent candidate who is close to the Evangelical church movement – which itself begs political questions about the priority given to vital issues like hate crime, domestic violence and (a live issue here in Brighton) the harassment of women seeking abortion advice.
In other words, it seems to me that the idea that you can take the politics out of policing is a deeply reactionary one, and one that plays into the hands of the people who want to cut, privatise and outsource policing. As does failing to vote, or campaigning to spoil your ballot paper. A low turnout in these elections (all too likely, I fear) will be a green light to those who want to privatise police provision, and who see policing as something that they can run for profit. Which I suspect is what the Coalition wants – and the irony of course is that those who argue for abstention are ensuring that the bean-counters will drive out accountability. Walking away from these elections – let alone the frivolity of spoiling ballot papers – helps the coalition achieve that aim.
I’d argue that the best way to resist the depoliticisation and managerialism that the PCC represents is to get out and vote – and vote for a candidate who will stand up against the privateers and outsources, and who has a strong background of working on the issues. Like it or not, we’re stuck with PCCs for the next few years; we need to make the best of it while developing an alternative.
So, despite my deep misgivings about the PCC system, I shall certainly vote on November 15. There is no Green candidate in Sussex – but for me there is one candidate who not only stands out from the field but frankly strikes me as the only credible contender: Godfrey Daniel, the Labour candidate. As a long-standing member of the Sussex Police Authority, the Sussex Probation Board and a JP, he has a background and a knowledge that the other candidates simply lack. As I’ve said here before, I have no confidence in the Labour Party nationally – I see it as complicit in, rather than opposing, the austerity agenda. I think Labour in office had a poor record in terms of police powers and civil liberties. And I wouldn’t necessarily agree with every aspect of Daniel’s platform (I guess I’d argue for more liberalisation of soft drugs than is implicit in his agenda). But in this case the individual is probably more important than the party; and that a strong vote for an experienced candidate who (in stark contrast to many in his party) explicitly opposes cuts and privatisation not only sends a message, but avoids the frivolity of abstention and ballot-spoiling. This is a vote for the individual, not the party.