We have an array of local elections being held, May 7th, in England and Wales. We have the high profile Mayoral contests along with a complicate mix of contests in district councils, unitary authorities, and metropolitan boroughs. I have already provided an initial overview but as Polling Day approaches, I will provide a closer look at the different categories in a weekly series. We shall start with the Police and Crime Commissioner elections.
Contests to elect a PCC will take place in the following areas:
- Avon and Somerset
- Devon & Cornwall
- North Yorkshire
- South Wales
- Thames Valley
- West Mercia
- West Midlands
- West Yorkshire
Police and Crime Commissioner elections last took place in 2016. That time the Conservatives won 20 PCC posts with 15 going to Labour. Both parties made gains at the expense of independents, though the independents still won three seats. I suspect that some voted for an independent at the first elections in 2012 due to a vague sense of disquiet that a PCC could order the police to go off and arrest political opponents (or decline to arrest political supporters). As such concerns proved ill-founded, the independents found it more difficult in 2016. Perhaps they will have a revival this time if disillusioned Labour voters turn to them – finding that easier than voting Conservative.
Plaid Cymru won two seats. Elections took place the same day for the Welsh Assembly – which probably helped Plaid and certainly will have increased turnout. That will not apply this time, as the Welsh Assembly operate on a five year cycle and so takes to the polls next year. Dyfed-Powys was gained by Plaid from the Conservatives last time. The General Election in December would suggest the Conservatives have a decent chance of taking it back.
Labour only narrowly won in Cheshire and Derbyshire. Leicestershire was a fairly close Labour victory. So those will be potential Conservative gains. Humberside will be more of a stretch – but it was won by the Conservatives in 2012. The same applies to Leicestershire.
UKIP got a significant vote share last time – 13.7 per cent. Where will those votes go? The Lib Dems only got 8.6 per cent. Even in their best result, Cumbria, they were in third place. So even if they substantially increase their vote share they are unlikely to win any seats.
Might Labour be saved from a drubbing by the election of a new Leader on April 4th? It is expected that Sir Keir Starmer will win. That will give him a chance to tour the studios and proclaim that Labour has a “fresh start”, that it has “moved on” from Corbynism. Surely, on the issue of crime, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn must have been especially toxic for Labour? With his sympathies for assorted terrorist groups, any Labour candidate claiming the Party was “tough on crime” faced being laughed to scorn. The difficulty for Labour is that they are doing so badly at present that even if a Starmer Bounce does transpire, giving them an extra couple of points in the polls, they would still be likely to lose seats.
So the Conservatives have good prospects of winning the PCC elections. Why does that not set the pulse racing? Why have several of the Conservative candidates been selected late and secretively?
After all, the PCCs have real power. They can set the budget and policing priorities. They have the power to hire and fire the chief constable. The contrast between the previous regime of police authorities – which were toothless talking shops – is stark. The cost of the system is much the same. But the new arrangements offer real democratic accountability. For that very reason some of the chief constables don’t like it. But there are advantages for them too. The PCC can help communicate with the public and provide “joined up” Government between the police and local authorities and the NHS.
The language used doesn’t help. The areas covered sometimes have artficial bureaucratic names such as Thames Valley, Humberside, or West Mercia. Then there is the title “Police and Crime Commissioner.” Dan Hannan first proposed that such a role should be introduced. He suggested they should be called “sheriffs.” This title was rejected as “too American” – an objection that betrays a limited grasp of history. Hannan also argues that the PCCs be given power “over local sentencing guidelines.” He says:
“Imagine that the PCC for Kent jailed shoplifters, while the PCC for Surrey took a softer line. One of two things would happen. Either a flood of Kentish crooks (and crooks of Kent) would pour across the county border, encouraging Surrey to elect someone tougher; or, conversely, Kentish taxpayers would baulk at funding the extra prison places. Either way, voters would be in charge.”
That reform would be welcome. But so would the existing PCC doing a more effective job with their existing powers. How many have really made clear that political correctness is to be banished and free speech upheld? Or taken bold steps to bring in reforms to improve value for money? What has been done to reduce bureaucracy and make policing less risk averse? Often it is the poor who suffer most when the police decide not to take action over “minor crime” – such as the theft of low value items. What are PCCs doing to change that defeatist culture?
The test would be if it really makes any difference if there is a Labour of Conservative PCC. In London, the role is taken on by the Mayor and there is clear evidence that the failings of Sadiq Khan have had an impact on rising crime. I’m not sure if there is a such a strong contrast between police forces elsewhere.
In fairness, there have been quiet achievements by PCCs that have tended to attract little media interest. But it is time for more assertiveness if the role is to win public credibility. For many Conservative PCC candidates, the hardest part will not be winning the election in May, but in proving that their victories make a difference to the rest of us.