Have elected police commissioners become the new political piñata? This week, the upcoming elections have taken a battering most notably from former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair. In an interview with Sky News, Blair irresponsibly encouraged the public to boycott the elections, citing his concerns over centralising police power in a single individual — much like his old role. But as we stated in this week’s leader, Blair’s denial may not be a bad thing for those who want to see radical change in the policing:
‘Ian Blair perfectly embodies what has gone wrong with policing in England. He is marinated in political correctness…now retired and ennobled, he sees these new commissioners as a threat to what policing has become.
‘The idea of giving us the chance to elect police commissioners is a radical agenda that reflects well on its author, Nick Herbert, the former Home Office minister. Anyone who believes in better policing should want to support it. Lord Blair would have us believe that every abstention is, in fact, a vote for him. David Cameron ought to thank his views on policing. There can be no greater spur to action.’
Rowenna Davis managed to capture Blair’s cynicism when she wrote that the elections ‘offer little more than an expensive way of leaving us all more disillusioned’. Davis highlighted many of the (legitimate) issues surrounding the first bout of elections but failed to spot the great potential offered by elected police officials.
Chiefly, PCCs will allow Bobbies to focus on local policing and adapt their strategies and methods to suit their patch. By passing down power to localised areas — where local concerns matter the most — elected commissioners will have the opportunity to build stronger links with residents and be more adept to tackle specific issues. If the public is dissatisfied with policing in their area, the elections offer the perfect way to instigate change. As the ex-policing minister Herbert wrote in the Telegraph, the government has introduced choice to many other public services — with education and the NHS being the most notable examples — so why should the police be exempt? It remains one the the country’s last great unreformed public services.
Secondly, it provides an opportunity to restore confidence in the police. The recent exposure of the Hillsborough coverup has done much to reduce the public’s estimation of the police, with a YouGov poll from September suggesting that two thirds of the public have little confidence in central government to maintain an effective police force. A more accessible force that has visible accountability will help to build bridges.
The public is not the only group which need to rebuild their relationship with the police. Following the Andrew Mitchell affair, relations between politicians and the police are at a significant low, highlighted by the enthusiasm of the Police Federation over the Chief Whip’s resignation. In the nick of time though, cross-party support from Westminster is beginning to rally behind these elections.
Thirdly, as Fraser wrote recently, there are some ‘jewels among the dirt’ of the candidates running for PCC positions. Strong and dedicated individuals who wish to serve their community now have a platform to do so, in a way that is genuinely helpful to their communities unlike the frequently turgid environments of local government.
As James noted in his column, elected police commissioners also provide an opportunity for Tories to beef up their presence in urban Britain. Many members of the public disregard the Conservatives at elections over historic prejudices, but acknowledge their tough stance on crime. These elections could be a helpful gateway for boosting Tory prominence before the next election.
Many of the problems with these elections can be attributed to poor support from some corners of the government as well as the nation’s general apathy towards politics. Neither of the factors should make them an unmitigated failure. Of course, one should not totally naïve about the elections. The turnout is unlikely to be sky high — with some ministers predicting as low as 15 per cent — and some of the candidates standing could be described as less than exemplary.
Despite its long-standing opposition to the policy, while enthusiastically standing candidates and launching their campaign, Labour will no doubt dismiss the policy a failure. But handing down power in the right way, as PCCs are an example of, is a core part of David Cameron’s manifesto for government. Given time, elected police commissioners could still be a success for the government.