By Matthew Barrett
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You wouldn't think there had been an England and Wales-wide election yesterday. Only three newspapers prominently display news of the PCC elections (above). All three make reference to the low turnout, which will be the only memorable feature of the elections for the average person.
To be sure, the turnout was low, and was disappointing, but was it a "humiliating blow" for the Prime Minister? No – or at least it shouldn't be. With elections at a highly unusual time of year, for a new office people might not yet understand, with relatively little awareness advertising (I saw one advert, about a month ago), and no taxpayer-funded leaflet campaigns, I'm not surprised turnout was low. It would have taken a Churchillian giant of British public life to secure any other outcome.
What of the actual results? David Cameron can take some pleasure in seeing that Conservatives won a plurality of the PCC seats, including some surprise wins. The end score was 16 to the Conservatives, 13 to Labour, 11 independents, and one win by "Zero Tolerance Policing ex Chief". The main Conservative surprises were wins in Humberside (against Lord Prescott) and Dyfed-Powys. There were pleasing victories in the Labour target seats of Cumbria, Staffordshire, Cheshire and Leicestershire. The Tories' northern support was better than might have been expected: Cheshire, Cumbria, Humberside, and North Yorkshire all went blue. Northamptonshire also went blue, despite the increased Labour-voting turnout in Corby.
There were disappointments, of course. Some Conservative target seats like Bedfordshire went to Labour, and the rise of the independent may have taken some Conservatives by surprise. This independent streak was most pronounced in the southern Tory heartlands – Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset, Avon and Somerset, Gloucestershire, Norfolk and West Mercia (in other words, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire) all went independent. Indeed, one could drive from Dover to Anglesey without passing through a single Labour or Tory seat.
The rise of the independents didn't just hurt Tories, however. Labour could probably have expected to win a clean sweep in Wales, and get all four PCC posts. Thanks to independents, and the Tory win in Dyfed-Powys, Labour only managed to win in South Wales, and the candidate in that seat was Alun Michael, who had been an MP in Cardiff for 25 years, a Member of the Welsh Assembly, the Secretary of State for Wales, the Leader of Welsh Labour and was the first First Secretary for Wales after devolution. Despite all that, Mr Michael didn't get over 50% of the vote in the first round of voting. Labour were also denied victory by independents in Warwickshire, where they will have expected to win, and in the Mayoral election in Bristol.
Reacting to yesterday's results, David Cameron said:
"Yes, they have a mandate. The turnout was always going to be low, when you're electing a new post for the first time, but remember these police and crime commissioners are replacing organisations that weren't directly elected at all. … For the first time people are going to have a local law and order champion… Now they have got them and those people in post will be able to prove their worth – that they are holding the police to account, they are getting things done for local people, they are prioritising the law and order crackdown that the people want to see – my prediction is that the turnout will be much higher next time around."
As my colleague Paul Goodman wrote earlier this week, let's see what the turnout is like when the elections are held at a normal time of year, and after the new PCCs have served a term. PCCs are an essential step towards greater police accountability, which is needed at the moment more than ever. Labour's attitude that "at a time of massive cuts", etc, the police should not be reformed, or given a greater dose of accountability at the top is utterly facile. PCCs are also a step towards banishing the centralised state of mind in Britain. A more responsive policing that meets the needs of the local area must be the right way forward.
In any case, being elected with a low turnout is surely more democratic than not being elected at all. David Cameron is right to point this out.