I need to begin with a confession: I am not a fan of elected mayors, or the recent decision by my own Government to introduce elected police commissioners. To break that down further: I would be a fan of elected police commissioners if the role were substantive, and operated along an American sheriff-style model, whereby the elected commissioner would be accountable for crime prevention and reduction in his or her area and indeed sentencing and detention also.This is a model I argued for on a number of occasions in Parliament. But that’s not what’s on offer.
I was delighted that, following the recent mayoral referendums to give people the choice to opt into electing a mayor, nine cities, including the UKs second largest city, Birmingham, rejected the proposal outright - thereby proving that it was something the people didn’t want or felt they needed as they convincingly said no. All politicians are viewed with cynicism by the public, and rightly so. Another layer to confuse the line of command is the last thing people want. It is hard to imagine that there will be queues outside polling stations in November as people hurry to elect another layer of bureaucracy in the form of a police commissioner.
The new proposals mean that chief constables will remain in place. Any elected commissioner will have absolutely no input or power over police operation, and nor should they whilst there is a chief constable, that must remain in his or her role. The commissioner's primary function is to have the power to hire and fire a chief constable – a responsibility fraught with complications in the face of UK employment law – and to administer budgets: a joy hardly likely to set the hearts of the brightest and most able beating faster.
According to press reports this weekend, the Home Secretary is lobbying the Treasury for money in order to attract a higher calibre of candidate than those who have applied for the role thus far, amidst very real concerns that the elections in November will be a washout with a dismal turnout.
The obvious time to hold an election for the elected police commissioners would have been during a local or national election when there is, to some degree, a captive audience. However, the "Curse of Clegg" struck once again as the Liberal Democrats, fearful that they would be disadvantaged by a higher Tory turnout, refused to allow the elections to take place next May and insisted they were held in November. This is when they believed they could maximise their advantage and work on turning out their core vote. (This was a decision taken some time ago when they still had a core vote, obviously.)
It was initially the Government's intention that the role would attract high profile, local, independent candidates who were outside of the political sphere. This has proven to be far from the case, with every one of the Conservative candidates chosen to date having been selected from within the system, either as party activists or councillors. Labour have selected former MPs and Ministers, including John Prescott and the former Solicitor General, Vera Baird.
In Hampshire, the Conservatives have selected Michael Mates, a 78 year old former Northern Ireland Minister. I am in no way ageist: Michael has obviously decided that this role is well within both his physical and mental capabilities, up to his reaching the age of 84, which is when he would be up for re-election. A fair assumption. It is difficult to see how the role could be described as either interesting or taxing.
One website, promoting the role of police commissioner and encouraging local people to apply, carries the banner headline: "Help Set The Budget To Assist Victims Of Crime’. Given the parameters of the role, that is about as sexy as the marketing gets. One high profile aspirant, Colonel Tim Collins, the man who delivered an incredibly inspirational and powerful off-the-cuff speech to 800 soldiers in the Kuwaiti desert, following a sandstorm and before the commencement of battle, had put himself forward – a move announced by Theresa May at the party conference. He has now pulled out. Do we blame him?
Call me a doomsayer, but here is my prediction: the November elections will be a disaster, thanks to the interference of the Liberal Democrats. We might possibly have overcome the LibDems' own brand of election fiddling if we had introduced a role with power and pizzazz. As it is, if we can’t find candidates of any notable quality to apply for the role, how on earth do we expect people to go out and vote?