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Move along now, nothing to see here

Move along now, nothing to see here

🕔19.Aug 2012

With the Olympic Games safely out of the way, I wondered how long it would be before the looming prospect of the first elections for police and crime commissioners would become a topic of debate.

The Electoral Commission duly obliged by publishing a pessimistic forecast that only 18.5 per cent of electors will bother to vote in the PCC polls on November 15.

My gut feeling is that the commission’s forecast is weighted on the high side. If the average turnout was 15 per cent, and considerably lower in some areas, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Of course, all of this is guesswork. The commission arrived at its prediction with a series of assumptions based ona baseline figure of 34 per cent for this year’s local government elections (although the figure was lower in Birmingham), then reduced that by six per cent to take account of the unpopularity of holding an election in November, cut a further 5.5 per cent to reflect the lack of Home Office funding for mailshots, and finally lopped a further four per cent to reflect the absence of party political broadcasts in the run up to the PCC elections.

We shall never know what might happen if, by some miracle, the Government was to throw money at publicity for the police commissioner elections, making the case for why we need commissioners and imploring people to go out and vote.

Quite possibly the result would still be a miserably low turnout for the fact is that electing officials to run things is not the English way. Or to be more accurate, electing a single official to run things is not what the English do.

What we prefer, it seems to me, is to play safe by electing lots of people to public office. Birmingham City Council has 120 members, for goodness sake. The so-called push to devolution by the council involves establishing lots of very large committees where many people will take decisions collectively, and no doubt feel that they are making an important contribution.

In such circumstances the elected mayor debate was always likely to be dominated by an irrational fear that choosing one person to take charge would result in the selection of an absolute rotter, or a self-serving corrupt crook.

Most of our institutions are inherently conservative, with an automatic default to the status quo even if the status quo isn’t really good enough. Councils, the police and fire services are hardly noted for free-thinking radicalism in their approach to delivering important public services.

It is joyously inexplicable, therefore, that Ministers took their feet off the safety-first pedal by approving the election of PCCs in the first place.

Of course, permitting referendums to be held for city mayors sounded radical on paper. But these polls were never likely to result in much support for change, and so it proved with most places including Birmingham firmly rejecting the idea after a ‘debate’ limited more or less entirely to the chattering classes and, hands up here, to people living outside of Birmingham.

Astonishingly, there won’t be a choice about whether we have change as far as PCCs are concerned. Come November 16, someone will have been elected West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner however miserable the turnout might have been.

The PCC will have the power to appoint or sack the chief constable. He or she can set crime fighting priorities and will have a statutory duty to consult closely with all communities to make sure that the police are carrying out their duties in the way that the public wishes.

In other words, for the first time in more than 200 years, a single elected official will be able to tell chief constables what to do and to get rid of inefficient desk-bound, gong-seeking pen-pushers. No wonder the highest ranks of the police are quietly incandescent with rage at the system that is to be forced on to them. The new order will not be to the liking of most chief constables, who have a tendency towards short fuses when criticism is lobbed in their direction.

The status quo, the establishment, call it what you will, is naturally making a valiant effort in the West Midlands to turn the election of a PCC to its advantage.

The Labour Party has selected as its candidate Bob Jones, a Wolverhampton councillor with more than 20 years membership of the Police Authority under his belt. If, as is thought likely, Coun Jones is elected PCC, the Chief Constable can breathe easily. It will be a matter of carry on as you were.

Paradoxically, the Conservative Party is being rather more daring having selected former Birmingham city councillor Matt Bennett as its PCC candidate. Mr Bennett has not been a member of the Police Authority and has in the past even been critical about some aspects of police performance in the West Midlands, describing detection rates a “woefully low” at the end of 2010.

There are several independent candidates, the Liberal Democrats may or may not choose someone to run but who cares, and there could be a far-right BNP contender. Perhaps UKIP might fancy a crack at it?

If the turnout does fall much below 20 per cent, anything could happen. Labour may be confident of victory in the current political climate, but Conservative supporters may be more likely to get out and vote on issues of law and order. A well-targeted under-the-wire campaign by the far right could result in a disproportionately large number of votes.

My feeling is that the night of November 15th may provide an anxious few hours for the chief constable of the West Midlands, Chris Sims.


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