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Could West Midlands PCC by-election be tarnished by Britain’s lowest turnout?

Could West Midlands PCC by-election be tarnished by Britain’s lowest turnout?

🕔24.Jul 2014

Those of us with a keen interest in politics are looking somewhat apprehensively towards next month’s by-election for a new West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner.

The contest will in any case be tinged with sadness following the sudden death of PCC Bob Jones on July 1. A celebration of Mr Jones’ life and his funeral were held yesterday in Wolverhampton. West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims paid tribute at the service: “I shall miss the man I have worked with for more than 15 years; dogged, quirky, loyal and dedicated.”

It seems quite likely that the by-election on August 21, slap bang in the middle of the summer holiday season, may go down in history for all of the wrong reasons. The West Midlands could be heading towards an unwanted accolade – the lowest turnout ever in any UK election.

In November 2012, the first PCC elections were staged in England and Wales and resulted in astonishingly low voter participation. Turnout averaged 15 per cent nationally, but the West Midlands displayed apathy on an unprecedented scale with a miserly 12 per cent turnout.

Persuading people to leave their homes to vote in cold, foggy, November at an election few people had heard of was difficult enough. Having an election in August during one of the hottest summers for years invites disaster. Families will either be away or sitting in their gardens. Walking to the polling station to choose a police commissioner is unlikely to be high on the list of priorities.

The lowest turnout in a parliamentary election was 18.2 per cent at Manchester Central in 2012 and, for a mayoral election, 18.5 per cent in Mansfield in 2007, which seems almost respectable when compared to the 12 per cent at the West Midlands PCC poll in the same year.

Perhaps we should brace ourselves for a single-figure percentage turnout. Such an outcome would be followed by much wailing and desperation among the chattering classes and could provide a handy final reason for a post-2015 Government to put the PCC regime out of its misery.

Paradoxically, there has been plenty of publicity for the Aug 21 election, but all of it for the wrong reasons.

Mainstream political leaders wanted to delay the contest until late September, partly to allow a decent amount of time to pass between Mr Jones’s funeral and the poll, and partly to secure a better turnout.

It quickly became clear that legislation laying down rules for by-elections allowed the Returning Officer no leeway once being notified of a vacancy. Two UKIP members duly issued that notification a day after Mr Jones’s death, and the election was called 35 days after the post became vacant.

Further embarrassment was to follow after it emerged the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, which lays down the procedure for PCC elections, did not allow for the distribution of candidates’ publicity leaflets at a by-election A special Commons committee had to be organised in order to amend the law and allow a pamphlet setting out details of the candidates to be sent to all households in the West Midlands.

Printing and issuing the pamphlets will cost £700,000. The total cost of the by-election is estimated at £3.7 million. Some 1,208 polling stations are required, but with schools closed during the holidays officials are desperately searching for alternative premises.

Labour will expect to win the by-election and have selected former transport minister David Jamieson as the party’s candidate. If he wins, he will appoint Birmingham Labour councillor Yvonne Mosquito, the acting PCC, as his deputy.

If the turnout is very low, anything could happen. UKIP expects to benefit from local and European election successes in May and has chosen Birmingham businessman Keith Rowe as its candidate.

Former Dudley Council leader Les Jones is the Conservative candidate. The Liberal Democrats have re-selected Ayoub Khan, who was their candidate in 2012.

Other would-be candidates have until 4pm on July 25 to decide whether to stand, if they can come up with a £5,000 deposit and the signatures of 100 electors.

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