The first Police and Crime Commissioner elections took place in November 2012. Holding them at that time of year meant turnout suffered – the date was an act of sabotage by Nick Clegg who insisted on a postponement from May that year. There were muddled criticisms about the cost and the low profile of the posts – missing the point that the relevant comparison was with the toothless Police Authorities which preceded them. Some police chiefs disliked the new PCC mechanism precisely because they did have teeth – accountability was not something they welcomed.
The elections last week saw the turnout increase from 15 per cent in 2012 to around 25 per cent. Labour has now accepted that the posts are here to stay – which probably helped them. They ended up with a tally of 15 – this compared with 13 last time.
However, the Conservatives can also celebrate. Our score was 16 in 2012. It is now 20.
The Conservatives gained Bedfordshire from Labour. This followed the failure of the Labour incumbent last year to win a referendum where he proposed a 16 per cent increase in Council Tax precept.
We also gained Hampshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Surrey, Warwickshire and West Mercia from independents. However, this was offset by losing Cheshire (very narrowly) and Leicestershire to Labour. Humberside was also lost to Labour – this was where Matthew Grove had caused a stir by defeating Lord Prescott in 2012. There was also the loss of Dyfed Powys to Plaid Cymru – very disappointing given the excellent job that Christopher Salmon has done as the Conservative PCC there. Plaid didn’t help their chances last time round by failing to field a candidate.
The job title of Police and Crime Commissioners is a bit long and bureaucratic. Dan Hannan (who came up with the idea for the role in his book called The Plan) suggested calling them sheriffs. Those who dismiss the term as an Americanism betray a limited knowledge of English history.
Still, they are part of the quiet revolution of localism. They have generally presided over a period where crime has fallen despite police budgets being squeezed. The PCCs may not have become celebrities but they have exponentially greater public engagement than the Police Authorities did – and which the public (quite rightly) regarded as a waste of time.
The media – at least the national media – still largely ignore the work that is going on. But the electorate and rival political parties now take the PCCs more seriously. They are not only here to stay but are being given an enhanced role with responsibility for the Fire Brigade – a natural fit for joint working.
Chief constables have started to see the advantages of the PCCs. The police are held to account but also have champions – those who can help to communicate the challenges they face to the public. The PCC can also help the police be better connected with other bits of the public sector such as the NHS and local government.
There is some modest but solid progress here – which deserves to be recognised rather than derided.