By Timothy Barnes.
Across England and Wales last Saturday,
small groups of volunteers were working to help candidates in the
first election for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), which will take
place on Thursday 15 November. I was in Cambridge for a couple of hours,
helping Conservative former-MP Sir Graham Bright in his bid
to become PCC for “Cambridgeshire and Peterborough”, so covering the City of Ely, where I
was born and raised. Sir Graham’s campaign was supported by local councilors,
party members, Cambridge University CA students and not just one, but three MEPs: Vicky Ford, Geoffrey Van Orden and David Campbell Bannerman.
Asking around amongst my friends on Monday
morning, I was struck by how few people seem to be aware of the elections, and
even less of the candidates, in their areas. Turnout everywhere is expected to be low, so much so that at this point
20% might be considered a good result (See Paul Goodman's article on ConHome for more on this). Regular listeners to the Today programme
on BBC Radio 4 would be aware of issues that have made it difficult for
independent candidates to stand, such as relatively high deposits (£5,000
versus the £500 for a Parliamentary Election), but would probably be ignorant
of what PCC’s will actually be able to do, or why anyone thinks we need them. Like
so much of the media, Today has covered perceived problems with the principles
of the PCC elections, rather than the issues that those elected might be
expected to deal with.
There will be no such vote in London, where
the Mayor already has oversight of the Metropolitan Police and it is possible
that London-based journalists and news outlets have covered the story less than
might have been the case had London been involved, but that can’t account for
the lack of excitement in most local media. It is true that many local papers
have covered basic information on candidates through interviews or profiles,
but there has been little debate about their plans or coverage in the editorial
pages that would have more usefully served their readers.
The result is that most voters are fairly apathetic
about the elections, many are ignorant about the role and a good number are
factually wrong in what they believe will happen.
In Cambridge, a reasonable proportion of
the people to whom I spoke were unhappy with what they saw as the
politicisation of the police. They saw election of PCC’s as an unwanted
involvement of elected representatives in the way the police service is run.
However, most were unaware that local politicians, usually councilors, already
sit on Police
Authorities, which currently oversee police activities. What is more, their concerns seemed to be
more about whether PCC’s would be able to interfere in police investigations
rather than issues over priorities of local policing, support and other topics
that the candidates are campaigning on.
I am not aware of any candidate in these
elections, whether party-backed or independent, who has not pledged to fight
for politics-free police investigations and support for front-line policing. But
there are things that PCC’s will be able to do that will effect the lives of
ordinary people and those voters should be able to express their views at the
ballot box having received more information.
In Cambridgeshire, there is a budget of
almost £140m for the local police force and the elected PCC will have a strong
say in the priorities for it. Sir Graham is looking to find ways to separate
the oversight of the police from their day-to-day activities and intends to
move the oversight function of the PCC out of the existing police headquarters
building creating a clear division between the two. He also hopes to support
local organistations that support victims of crime, such as rape crisis groups
and crime prevention schemes, including the NFU’s FarmWatch, which helps protect rural
communities and is a major issue for much of Cambridgeshire beyond its three
Other candidates have different spending and
policing priorities that voters might prefer but it is hard for anyone to make
an informed choice with so few views having been given a decent airing or
subjected to much public or press scrutiny. I have met with similar comments
when making telephone calls on behalf of candidates in Cumbria, Derbyshire and
elsewhere across England.
Anyone seeking elected office needs to rely
on the media to help spread word of their activities and policies. This is
particularly true for independent candidates, who lack access to an active
supporter base that are well used to running campaigns, distributing leaflets
and contacting voters. That has not happened here and while it is
understandable that some object to the very idea of electing PCC’s that does
not change the situation: there will be an election for them on Thursday and
voters should have been better served in learning about the candidates and
you want to know more about any candidate in the PCC elections, the Home Office
website has a complete list of candidates.