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Rounding up the usual suspects

Rounding up the usual suspects

🕔03.Jul 2012
Falkland's War veteran Simon Weston.

Simon Weston, the Falkland’s War veteran, has abandoned his attempt to become Police and Crime Commissioner in South Wales saying that he was dismayed that the role had already become politicised.

Perhaps the horrifically scarred survivor of the attack on RFA Sir Galahad in 1982 was a little naïve in thinking that PCC contests would be anything other than political, but he has correctly identified a glass ceiling in UK public affairs – there is generally no place for the free thinking independents.

Mr Weston was determined not to tie himself to a political party. He wanted to be an Independent PCC. Naturally, this being South Wales, if he had quietly joined the Labour Party a few years ago and worked his way up the ranks, Mr Weston would probably have been a shoo-in for PCC.

It is not generally remembered now, but one of the big ideas to flow from the first Blair government post-1997 was the notion that far more people from a wider background should be encouraged to play a role in local government and other public bodies. Mr Blair even suggested that it might be a good thing if successful businessmen and women who were not members of political parties put themselves forward to stand as elected mayors in our big cities.

These people, it was argued, would bring fresh ideas, vigour and vast experience from the boardroom to re-ignite councils. They would ride roughshod over red tape and get things done quickly. It would be a welcome change from the generation of plodding professional politicians who tended to become researchers for MPs after leaving university and then move to Westminster or become local councillors with no hinterland outside of politics to speak of.

It was a radical idea, but one that never stood a chance of getting off the ground. Independent mayors and Independent PCCs would have resulted in a loss of control for the Labour Party in the West Midlands, or the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in some parts of the country.

The idea simply could not be countenanced in a country where appointments at most levels are politicised. Birmingham is no different to any other large city or town in the way that jobs are handed out by the political party, or parties, in control of the city council. From school governors to charity trustees, chairmen of local committees and housing liaison boards, scrutiny committee chairs and cabinet members, candidates have political patronage to thank for their appointment.

One of the arguments against an elected mayor for Birmingham often trotted out when the matter was first debated 12 years ago highlighted the “danger” that a charismatic Independent candidate might win. Heaven knows, you wouldn’t want anyone with charisma leading Birmingham.

The likes of Professor Carl Chinn and former CBI Director General Digby Jones were often mentioned, with Prof Chinn’s brand of folksy working class bonhomie seen as particularly threatening by Labour particularly after his valiant attempts to save the Rover car firm. Digby Jones, it was claimed, might run as an Independent but would really be a Tory in disguise.

Unsurprisingly, not many towns and cities have elected mayors. Where mayors do exist most are party political placements, although there are some obvious exceptions to this with Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough and Stuart Drummond in Hartlepool. A glance at the list of candidates for PCCs in England and Wales shows that it is once more a matter of rounding up the usual suspects.

The Labour Party worked quickly to produce a full slate of its candidates. Most are party stalwarts, ex-MPs, former ministers, councillors and chairmen of police authorities. PCCs may represent a radical change to the way police forces are overseen, but the high-profile jobs will be filled by establishment representatives of the status quo who, when push comes to shove, will always toe the party line.

In the West Midlands Labour decided that Wolverhampton councillor Bob Jones, with more than 25 years of experience on the police authority, and Birmingham city councillor Yvonne Mosquito would be the two names on a candidates’ shortlist. Coun Jones was duly selected and Coun Mosquito, also a longstanding police authority member, will be his deputy if he becomes PCC.

Former Birmingham councillor Mike Olley, a charismatic maverick, did not make it on to the shortlist despite believing that he had the unofficial backing of Labour NEC member Tom Watson as well as numerous Labour MP, councillors and ward committees in the West Midlands.

The Conservative Party is attempting to make much of a decision to select its West Midlands PCC candidate through a series of open primary elections, where anyone on the electoral register can vote even if they are not Conservative members.

But the move is not quite as bold as it may at first appear. The Tories took care to present the primaries with a shortlist of just two candidates, former Birmingham councillor Matt Bennett and Solihull councillor JoeTildesley. To be honest, there isn’t much to choose from. Either could do the job but it would be a surprise given the political landscape if the West Midlands was to elect a Conservative PCC.

One of the main duties of a PCC, according to the Home Office, will be ensure that police forces are answerable to the communities that they serve. A noble aim indeed, but one that if ever achieved will have been done so through the prism of a rigid and unforgiving party political structure.

There is an old story told about the former Labour leader of Birmingham City Council Sir Richard Knowles, which may be apocryphal but has more than a ring of truth to it. A newish, young councillor went to see Dick one day in a state of anxiety, claiming to have evidence of criminal dishonesty against a veteran Labour councillor.

“He’s a crook, Dick,” complained the high-minded councillor.

From behind a swirl of cigar smoke, came the reply: “I know he’s a crook, comrade. But he’s our crook.”

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