For obvious reasons, the past year has offered lean pickings for enthusiasts for local democracy. Not only were last year’s local elections cancelled, but we have even been denied – in England at least – the weekly hit of Council by-elections. Thursday May 6th will change all that with an unprecedented banquet of voting opportunities. A tsunami of ballot papers. A cacophony of campaigning. Except in Northern Ireland where no elections are taking place.
This week and next, on Conservative Home, I will be previewing different categories of elections.
We shall start with the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. There will be 36 contests in England and four in Wales. The last PCC elections took place in 2016. The Conservative candidates won 20 of the 40 contests held in England and Wales. 15 were won by Labour, three to independents, and two to Plaid Cymru. Some of the other elections this May were last contested in 2017. That makes for a big contrast in expectations. In 2017 the Conservatives won by a huge margin – astonishing given that the General Election a few weeks later produced a hung Parliament. But 2016, which concerns us here, was much tighter. The BBC’s analysis offered a projected national vote share of Labour 31 per cent, Conservatives 30 per cent, Liberal Democrats 15 per cent, and UKIP 12 per cent.
Opinion polls currently show the Conservatives around six or seven points ahead. Some expect that lead to nudge up a bit next month as the “vaccine bounce” grows. If so, then potential Conservative gains from Labour would be Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire. Humberside is more of a “stretch target” – but it was won by the Conservatives in 2012.
In Wales, Plaid Cymru were helped to boost their turnout last time with elections taking place the same day for the Welsh Assembly. That will apply again this time due to the PCC elections having been postponed from last year. Dyfed-Powys was gained by Plaid from the Conservatives in 2016. The opinion polling for Wales tends to suggest the Conservatives have improved on their position from five years ago – so should be well placed to win it back.
Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:
“The PCC elections will probably be buried or submerged as the media and voters find higher profile elections of more interest. Voters tend to follow party lines in PCC elections unless there is a high profile independent. Parties find it hard to motivate their supporters to the polls for the PCC elections unless there is another election taking place as well. This could be a challenge for the Conservatives in Avon and Somerset. That is because in Somerset there are no local elections. Labour will be helped on turnout as elections are happening in Bristol.”
To make the contest in Avon and Somerset still more intriguing the sitting independent is standing down. Perhaps, given Hayward’s insight about differential turnout, this might be a Labour gain even while the Party made losses elsewhere.
Given the widespread dismay at Jeremy Corbyn’s utterances on terrorism, it might be felt that with Sir Keir Starmer – a former Director of Public Prosecutions – the credibility of the Labour Party has been enhanced since 2016. Yet such calculations seem to be overwhelmed by public indifference. Most people don’t know or care if they have a Labour or a Conservative PCC. They would struggle to identify what difference it makes.
While the voters may have been right so far they may find in future that PCCs have a greater impact.
First of all, there is the question of the budget. Under normal times that might tick along with modest annual increases. That is the Government’s plan – to rely on tax increases rather than spending cuts to bring the public finances under control. But what if spending cuts become necessary after all? Supposing interest rates go up. With an overdraft of £2.13 trillion that would be significant for the Government’s cost for interest on its debt. One per cent of £2.13 trillion is more than the total annual police budgeting for the UK. Or what if Corporation Tax rises don’t raise as much as the Government forecast? Or anything at all?
PCCs might defer to Chief Constables on the relative effectiveness of crime fighting techniques. But when it comes to budgets – all the array of matters such as asset management, technological change and back office costs – then the PCCs might be more assertive. With their background in business or as council leaders they might have more of a grasp of such challenges than their chief constables. If savings are needed, then it will be for PCCs to make sure they are found in ways that do not harm public safety. Some may retort that PCCs have a duty to be rigorous in pursuing value for money regardless of the size of the budget available to them. True, but spending cuts tend to concentrate the mind.
Secondly, the powers of PCCs are being clarified and enhanced. Only last week we had a statement from Priti Patel, Home Secretary, which set out the direction of travel for giving them more authority. That is welcome. When PCCs have sought to set out policing priorities, chief constables have felt able to brush this aside. Instead, they defer to the National Police Chiefs’ Council with the policies it favours under the guise of “coordination” for police strategy and law enforcement. It may be that the chief constables are being unreasonable to do so, but the NPCC does have statutory force. That gives the chief constables wriggle room to thwart local accountability.
Patel also indicated that in future PCCs would have responsibility for the fire brigade – a very sensible reform.
It could be that PCCs have been ineffective as they lack power. Or that they have failed to realise the power they have. Either way, the Home Secretary has pledged to ensure that they do have power and they have a responsibility to show leadership in ensuring that the public’s priorities are recognised.
All that will come too late for May 6th. Cynicism and apathy will make PCC voting a partisan afterthought. Next time around it might be different.