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Time for Labour to make its peace with the idea of police commissioners

Time for Labour to make its peace with the idea of police commissioners

🕔20.Jun 2012

by Kevin Meagher

So there we have it, 41 newly-minted Labour police and crime commissioner candidates. Greeting their unveiling, Ed Miliband said the party would “make the best of a bad job”, using the elections for these new roles as a referendum on police cuts.

Meanwhile shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said Labour still believed November’s elections should be “called off” and the money reinvested in frontline policing.

Do I detect a distinct lack of enthusiasm?

As I’ve argued before, Labour really should not be so curmudgeonly about elected police commissioners. With government plans rubbing out a fifth of police numbers and decimating back office staff, there is a real need for a strong democratic voice at the top of local constabularies providing public accountability about how policing is restructured in response to the cuts.

That aside, what are we to make of those selected? First of all it was a victory for high profile figures – with seven former ministers selected.

Former deputy PM John Prescott won in Humberside, although the narrowness of his victory surprised many. He won with 552 votes, with former Hull divisional police commander, Keith Hunter, running him a close second on 458.

The toughest scrap looks to have been in Merseyside though, where two former ministers went head-to-head for the nomination. Former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle took on former Northern Ireland minister Jane Kennedy in what was seen locally as something of a grudge match.

A more leisurely pace was found further down the M62 as Manchester Central MP Tony Lloyd, former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, was confirmed as Greater Manchester’s candidate after failing to find a challenger. He was selected unopposed.

As was former Labour MEP Simon Murphy in West Mercia.

A second parliamentary by-election now looms following the selection of former Welsh first secretary Alun Michael who was elected to fight South Wales. Meanwhile his son, Tal, a former police authority official, was picked to fight in North Wales.

Former deputy leader of the House of Commons, Paddy Tipping, narrowly won the Nottinghamshire nomination, while former DWP minister James Plaskitt romped home in Warwickshire.

As did former solicitor general and Redcar MP, Vera Baird, in Northumbria.

She is one of 15 women selected as Labour PCC candidates – 37 per cent of the total.

Meanwhile, 12 of the nominations – 29 per cent – were uncontested, with just a single candidate stepping forward, hardly a ringing endorsement for internal party democracy.

Familiarity worked for councillors too – especially those with experience of serving on police authorities.  In Lancashire, local county councillor and police authority member Clive Grunshaw will be hoping to prevail in November, with the party doubtless using his campaign as a platform to seize back control of its former northern flagship, Lancashire County Council, next May.

The party will be also be hoping to win in Cheshire where the solid John Stockton – who narrowly missed out on becoming an MP in Weaver Vale last time around – is the candidate.

Another former county councillor/ police authority stalwart won in Lincolnshire. Phil Dilks – or “fair deal Phil” as he is known because of his tenacious local campaigning – also happens to be the party’s longest-serving press officer. Famous as an ever-present feature of parliamentary by-election campaigns, Dilks will face an uphill struggle but is enormously likeable with broad, independent appeal.

In South Yorkshire another police authority veteran, Rotherham councillor Shaun Wright, saw off a challenge from Thought for the Day regular, Dr Alan Billings – a cerebral former Anglican priest and one-time deputy leader of Sheffield City Council who had been backed by former home secretary David Blunkett. He also beat former South Yorkshire chief constable, Med Hughes, who had joined the party to stand for the PCC role after leaving the force last year.

The elections are due to be held on 15 November, raising fears about turnout. Weather may be a critical factor. For what it’s worth, last November was the second mildest in 100 years.

There is also a real prospect of a number of independents being elected. A poll last month showed a quarter of voters ready to support an independent candidate while, worryingly, 20 per cent of Labour supporters could envisage doing so.

The electoral arithmetic is uncertain. The Police Foundation has made various calculations the upshot of which is that the Tories will win the most commissioners. Overlaying the latest opinion poll projections on the 2010 general election results, they predict the Tories will pip Labour with 21 commissioners to 20. A thin blue line indeed.

This of course sounds worse than it is. Shorn of Scotland and London (the elections are the rest of England and Wales only), Labour’s electoral support will always look less impressive.

But the size and shape of constabularies varies wildly. With one million people, Lancashire has twice the population of neighbouring Cumbria. Yet both will return a commissioner each. Fighting for the context of the overall result is going to be the name of the game.

And a lot may hinge on the outcome for all three party leaders. With the Lib Dems opting not to stand many candidates, the party will look as though it has chickened-out, fearful of further electoral humiliations. So will we see them endorsing their coalition partners’ candidates on the ground?

For the Prime Minister, there is a lot riding on police commissioners. His efforts at democratic reform have not delivered much, following the failure of elected mayors to catch on in May and his boundary review looking less and less likely to see the light of day. He needs a good showing in November. Expect ministers’ rhetoric on crime to ratchet up in coming weeks.

For Ed Miliband, keeping up electoral momentum is essential after a good showing in May’s local elections; but difficult in an unpredictable set of elections. And by choosing a national message so unequivocally, will the party remake the mistake it made in Bradford West and fail to tailor its message to fit local concerns?

So this unloved and unpredictable set of elections, coming a week after the hubris of the US presidential election, is not exactly setting political hearts a-flutter, but elected police and crime commissioners are a reality.

And time for Labour to make peace with the idea.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Curated from Labour Uncut, written by Editor

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