Last week’s police commissioners’ election was the biggest non-event in a very long time. In terms of voter turnout it was truly abysmal. Were it not for the court jester’s candidacy – John Prescott – it would have been even worse.
This lack of interest is a pity because crime in a recent poll was right up there almost on a par with benefits and pensions as an issue of great concern to the public. Why then this lack of voter turnout when it has been given a chance to do something about it?
First, unlike general elections and referendums, there was a marked lack of information and hype. It all seemed like one big yawn; we didn’t even know who was standing nor where we were expected to vote and what’s more, no one bothered to tell us. In my own case, on the day itself, I had to ring up the town hall to find out where to vote and ask for a list of candidates. It took them ages to find out. Then I had to Google each one to find out what he or she stood for and what their track record was. Who, apart from a few nerds like me, was going to go to all that trouble? I tell you, I was on the line all of ten minutes waiting for an answer – and then they gave me the wrong place to go and vote.
What then was so important about this particular election? First, law and order is something that impinges on the life of every one of us. We have more contact with plod, by far, than we do with our local MPs. And the person who heads up our constabulary is responsible for an area and population hugely greater than our MP – in my case the whole of Devon and Cornwall, where there are many MPs.
We have all for many years been feeling that our friendly neighbourhood policeman has been slipping away from us: his presence on our streets declines daily, his appearance grows more intimidating, and his friendly nick closed – except by appointment in increasing numbers. He cannot, as a matter of course, have guns because on this one we dig in our heels, but he says ‘in that case then let us have tasers’. He seems unwilling to listen to our pleadings and determined to go his own way.
We have always judged it important that, operationally, the police should be free from political interference. And while this has to be right, it is equally right that ultimate control of policy should rest with civilians. In theory this is the case, but every Home Secretary has found it next to impossible either to impose their will on a Chief Constable or sack him when it becomes necessary. The reality is that the police have many of the characteristics of an army: they learn to march in formation and salute; they are trained to obey orders; and they can hold you against your will; they have armouries; are licensed to kill; and they wear uniforms, even body armour. But we do not allow an army commander – even the chief of staff – to decide policy, much less to determine the magnitude of the lethal force to be used. If we did, then General MacArthur – admittedly an American but bound by the same military ethos – would have atom-bombed the Chinese in Korea. His insistence caused him to be sacked by the president.
Because the new police commissioners have hire-and-fire powers over chief constables, as well as budgetary control, we can now reasonably expect police priorities to move in the direction we would all like. What was important in this recent election was that we didn’t get a load of puffed up, power-hungry chancers make it through to these crucial positions. Nor did we want them to be over politicised. In the event, the public (at least that small part of it that voted) thought this too and the Independents, as a result, made a very good showing.
In a perverse sort of way the pathetically low voter turnout may have aided (this first time round) a good outcome. Elections are normally held during the better weather of the summer, and what with the lack of information and hype, Two Jags’ supporters couldn’t be bothered to stir themselves from the warmth of their slumbers on that cold November day. Yet the Polly Peck, compromised Michael Mates for the Tories couldn’t get his loyal followers out either so the field was left clear for that little band of determined, civic-minded individuals who saw the potential and understood what was at stake to make the effort. So, for the second time, Two Jags had egg on his face, but on this occasion managed to restrain himself from throwing a punch at his adversary.
May these elected police chiefs not be seen as part of the much touted ‘Big Society’ so beloved of the PM? David Cameron may not have planned it this way – that would have been too Machiavellian; too clever for him – but the fates conspired to keep the famous ‘plebs’ at home and leave it to the more dedicated. He may, as a result, have got himself some very good police commissioners. If the commissioners they do a good job, they can reasonably expect a new term with re-election.
For all the present government’s shortcomings, there is at last the prospect that many areas of public life will be the better for police commissioners having been brought into existence, albeit again – like the recent election – in an unplanned for way.
The coalition is hellbent on making us solvent again, although weaker on promoting growth; it is tackling welfare abuse and shrinking the bloated state; it promises a revolution in raising educational standards and it is not giving up on immigration. Only the police stand unreformed – a law virtually unto themselves with some horrendous practises coming to light. Now, at last, we may see some real changes there too.
If the economy starts to recover it would be a mean person who would not give the government on whose watch it all happened some credit.