The Conservative candidate for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands has called on the media and his rivals to do more to involve the electorate in the debate.
Matt Bennett says he wants to see two debates held in each of the seven local authority areas that will be covered by the new role after the November 15 election, and urged other candidates to join him to put pressure on the BBC and ITV Central to put them together.
He said: “With less than 100 days to go until the election we now have five declared candidates and there may be more to come. We as candidates need to do more to show the wider electorate the choice that is on offer. I don’t think ordinary people’s taxes should be paying for leaflets, but in any case, people really need to see and hear the candidates in person debating the issues.
“I am therefore calling for a series of debates to be held around the West Midlands. There are seven local authority areas and I think we should be able to manage two in each of them, plus a televised debate if Midlands Today or Central News are willing to host. If the other candidates are up for this challenge I’m sure we can all agree format and timings and come to an arrangement about venue costs. The question is, will they take me up on this challenge?”
Mr Bennett will have in mind the almost universal apathy that greeted campaigners’ attempts to get the people of Birmingham and other cities to choose to be governed by an elected mayor in a failed referendum vote just four months ago.
A dismal turnout on a rain-drenched polling day delivered a humiliating defeat for the Government, even though the vote coincided with local elections in most areas. The prospect of a chilly winter’s night in November achieving a voter turnout of more than 20% must be remote to say the least, and it’s unlikley the eventual winner will be able to use the words ‘popular mandate’ without keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek. (Or hers, of course).
I can’t see the battered remnants of the local media devoting much of their meagre resources to another political campaign that nobody seems to care about, let alone going to the expense of hosting a multitude of events. The debate is destined to be of interest only to the West Midlands chatterati (both of whom regularly read The Chamberlain Files, I understand), and it seems inevitable that one or other of the party machines will serve up a candidate who will more drift into office than be carried in on the shoulders of an enthusiastic public.
But there’s a serious point here, too. The lack of debate and engagement opens up a serious risk of extremist candidates gaining ground.
Think about it. If general turnout is around the sub-20% mark (and could be even lower in some areas) a committed, well-organised grouping has an opportunity to swing things in its favour by mobilising votes within the excluded, tight-knit and identifiable communities it claims to represent. Whether from white working class estates wooed by the extreme right, or the insular neighbourhoods of excluded communities courted by religious extremists, turnouts of 60% or more could serve up enough votes to make things very uncomfortable indeed for mainstream candidates.
Larger police authority areas like the West Midlands will most likely escape this scenario because of the diluting effect of a wider electorate, but it shouldn’t be discounted for smaller authorities.
But even here, do we really want to allow extremist groups to claim more political legitimacy than they deserve?