The election for the first wave of Police and Crime Commissioners takes place tomorrow. The well-informed masses will righteously march towards the polls en masse. Or perhaps they won’t.
Most people are barely aware that the elections are happening. Turnout is predicted to be approximately 18.5% of the electorate. The Electoral Reform Society has described the whole process as “a lesson in how not to run an election”.
Teresa May has defended the elections: “I know that some people have been critical of the Government for holding these elections. But what our critics are really saying is: ‘You can’t trust the public to oversee policing.’ I reject this elitist snobbery… We’re putting the people in charge.”
However, even if this had been a well run election, in my opinion the creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) is the wrong solution for the professed aim of giving local people greater control of policing. This isn’t only because low turnout will undermine their mandate. And it’s not only because the PCC Areas cover such broad swathes of the country as to make a mockery of their being termed ‘local’ representatives. Thames Valley, anyone?
It may have escaped the notice of some, but we already have a system that allows people to elect local representatives to make decisions and hold services to account on their behalf. It’s not fashionable, but it’s called local government. When people vote in local elections, crime and anti-social behaviour are usually high on their list of priorities, and they assume that their elected representatives will be in a position to influence the response to these issues.
Broadly, the role of local authorities is to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. This includes protecting their communities from crime. In each local authority area, there are Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) made up of representatives from the police and police authority, the local council, and other local organisations, working together to reduce crime and disorder. Councillors have the power to scrutinise the work of CSPs.
Why create another layer of process and officialdom when we already have systems for local representatives holding the police to account through CSPs and Overview and Scrutiny Committee processes? If these relationships aren’t at present ensuring sufficient local accountability and influence over policing, then that’s an argument for strengthening the relationship and giving it more teeth. We don’t need more elections and more layers of control, setting up inevitable tensions between PCCs and CSPs. We need to strengthen the local democratic arrangements we have.
Last week I heard Professor Gerry Stoker speak at a conference at Enfield Council, describing how the soon to be elected Commissioners are inevitably being set up as “weak and marginal actors” who will continue to be constrained by national parties, agencies and priorities. At the same conference, Professor Jerry White described the forthcoming elections as a ‘parody of local democracy.’
In the coming days these ‘actors’ will provide a distracting sideshow, ironically performing under the banner of localism. Behind the scenes we seem to continue the slide towards fragmentation of our democratic arrangements and further undermining of real local accountability.