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Expert Comment: Police Commissioner Elections

Police Friday 9 November 2012

John M Phillips, Award Director for Liverpool Hope's MSc Police Leadership, on this week's Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

Thursday 15th November sees elections in 41 police force areas for the new post of Police and Crime Commissioner. Apart from the Conservatives, it is not clear who wants them. Their Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are leaving decisions to stand for election to local groups. Labour is contesting all elections in a challenge to the government rather than because of a belief that they will provide a better or greater accountability. The pollsters have predicted low turnouts, the Electoral Reform Society suggesting less than 20%. Journalists and broadcasters meet with ignorance and apathy on the street in their search for what people think about the election. Lord Ian Blair, ex-Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has called on voters to boycott the ballot. Sir Hugh Orde, the head of Acpo (Association of Chief Officers) has warned of 'inevitable tension' between the Commissioners and Chief Constables over budgets, and local versus national priorities.

So why the change? Theresa May, the Home Secretary, argues that the existing system of  accountability and responsibility, key elements in the Thatcherite principles of New Public Management which persisted through New Labour, is indirect. Police authorities were made up of elected representatives but they were not directly accountable to the electorate for their running of the police service. The new Police and Crime Commissioner will be responsible for recruiting and dismissing chief constables, agreeing budgets and setting strategic priorities. May argues that this direct accountability will be more effective and more democratic.

It will be interesting to see what happens: it is a leap in the dark. Will the turn-out be as low as predicted? Will the Commissioners reflect the local political hue and `party ticket`? Will independents be elected in an attempt by an independent-minded electorate to break free of the established parties? Will there be greater accountability, and will policing strategy become populist?

The democratic process in local government has seen two important reforms in recent months, the direct election of a Mayor and now the direct election of a Police and Crime Commissioner. It is not known if more such reform is to follow. Peter Cook's satirical film of 1970, 'The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer', suggested that an electorate given opportunity to express an opinion on everything from foreign policy to the colour of post boxes, soon grew tired of decision-making, and in one last referendum voted that there should be no more referendums. Wasn’t there something from Churchill about democracy being the worst form of government except for…?

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