In the coming days, West Midlands residents will have an opportunity to take part in the largest open primary ever seen outside the capital to select the Conservative candidate for the Police and Crime Commissioner. Born and bred Brummie, Dominic Fisher, previews the event.
The battle between Matt Bennett and Joe Tildesley to win the selection to be the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner candidate for the second largest police force in the country is shaping up to be an interesting one.
To set the scene, the West Midlands police authority is a smaller and more urban area than the West Midlands area which is a 'region' for EU elections. Labour hold 19 of the 27 Parliamentary seats within it, but if it is true that the Conservatives retain a lead over Labour on crime and policing and that right-wing voters care more about crime, the Conservative candidate for the elections to take place this November must feel that they can win with the right campaign.
Both Coventry and Birmingham voters firmly rejected elected mayors earlier this year, so the eventual post holder will immediately become one of the most powerful figures in the region. It can't be overlooked that Labour candidates, many of whom don't even agree with the post, aim to use the position as little more than a platform to oppose national polices.
Labour's candidate in the West Midlands is no exception. On his quiet facebook page, his latest campaign is to lobby for Freepost. I hope I am not alone in thinking that somebody who doesn't agree with the position could at least have the decency to keep his hand's out of the taxpayer's pockets to fund his campaign.
Happily, our candidates provide pleasingly alternative options for voters. Both have been local council Cabinet members for Children and support the creation of the role, but that's where the similarities end.
The most obvious difference is the generational one. When Matt served in Birmingham City Council Cabinet he was the youngest member, whereas Joe retired from his police career a decade ago. Their political background is also sharply contrasting. On the one hand, Matt was elected to Stockland Green, a deprived ward bordering Spaghetti Junction with inner city characteristics, whilst Joe serves the leafy Solihull ward of St Alphege, where the Conservative majority both this year and last was over 50%!
I feel the most significant difference though may lie in the relationship they propose with the police. Joe had a decorated 30 year policing career reaching the level of Inspector and was involved both nationally and locally with the Police Federation. He remains well known and liked in policing circles and his pitch contains the familiar themes of getting more police on the beat.
On the other hand, Matt, who advocates a zero tolerance strategy to crime, is well known for his record of making public criticisms of both the police authority and the police. He was at the forefront of criticism over policing of the riots in Birmingham and was a galvanising figure in opposing the ill-fated Project Champion surveillance fiasco.
The use of a multi-location open primary will lend legitimacy to the winner and should build his profile across the region, but the format may also lead to high political drama. Imagine if, after the 2010 televised debates, an audience vote was taken and the cumulative totals used to pick the winner. That's how this one will work, which I imagine will reward intelligent message honing between debates.
Cynics may query the choice of Matt Bennett's 'home' turf of Erdington for the first debate, but times are hard and this is the largest venue associated with the Conservative Party in Birmingham. The two middle debates will be in Halesowen and Walsall, which are likely to host the greatest proportion of undecided voters. The final vote is in Joe's home patch. Given the extra recruitment time and the extra buzz around the final showdown, the schedule is likely to be somewhat favourable to the local candidate. Let's hope the party can fit everyone in!
Any West Midlands resident on the electoral roll can come to one of the four debates. More details here.
Best of luck to both candidates and let's hope this open primary provides a platform for success in November and better and more accountable policing in the future.