The inevitable result of the Police Commissioner elections

By Alex Bryan

On 15 November, the first ever Police Commissioner elections will take place in England and Wales. Much has been made of the low turnout expected at the polls, which will surely be a disappointment for the Government, which championed the idea of these elections on the basis of localism.

Turnout, however, is almost an irrelevance in these elections. Strange as it sounds, so is the result. The monumentally important thing that will arise from these elections is a re-framing of crime policy in this country. More specifically, Police Commissioner elections will drag UK crime policy dramatically to the right, both on a local and a national level.

For decades the Conservative Party gained significant support from the working class for its strong ‘law and order’ policy, and Labour were only able to regain power once they convinced the public that they held a similar position. When Tony Blair said that he would be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, it was the promise to be ‘tough on crime’ which won him mass support.

Public opinion on crime has always been of a ‘lock ‘em up’ nature, which has usually been tempered by politicians. The creation of the police commissioner role makes this less possible. Police commissioners can do little to prevent crime in a meaningful long-term way, so the discourse both in elections and throughout the term will be on ‘tackling crime’.

The video released by the Home Office to encourage participation in the elections has actively encouraged this view of the role. The video shows violent crime, vandalism, abuse, muggings and shoplifting accompanied by a haunting musical score. The message is ‘On 15th November, criminals will hope you do nothing’. By portraying crime as simply ‘something done by criminals’ and by suggesting the Police Commissioner role is only about stopping violent crime, the Home Office has framed the elections within the ‘law and order’ paradigm. The video footage of crime might encourage a few people to vote, but it will also encourage a view of crime which is unhelpful, and likely to result in some radical candidates being elected.

The result of the election is a shift in the Overton window towards dangerous crime policy. Regardless of who wins on November 15, the long-term effect will be a revival of a crime policy which demonises ‘criminals’ rather than analysing crime, which favours draconian punishment and reprisal over pre-emptive measures and which, ultimately, makes people feel less safe. This is already happening; the fact that 5 far-right English Democrat candidates are standing, whereas only one Green Party candidate is up for election shows how this position favours a right-wing concept of crime.

This is likely to transfer into the national arena. Indeed, the ground is fertile for a radicalisation of crime policy. Chris Grayling is the most right-wing Justice Secretary there has been since the role was introduced in 2007, and is likely to be sympathetic to calls for a more draconian criminal justice paradigm. His speech at the Conservative Party Conference is a manifesto for a radical crime policy, with calls for a right to self-defence and a ‘two strikes and out’ policy for violent crime. Considering that a successful or popular Police Commissioner could become a viable party option for a role in the Ministry of Justice or the Home Office, soon enough, national policy could be driven by ex-Police Commissioners.

Some will say that if the elections result in the election of radical candidates, or results in candidates fighting over who will be toughest on crime, that is simply a reflection of the views of the electorate, and should be accepted in a democracy. But no democracy has elections for everything. It is an act of political expediency to decide which positions we should have elections for and which should be appointed by elected or unelected officials. A healthy democracy is not one which has elections for everything, but one which has elections for the right things. The introduction of Police Commissioner elections will make our democracy much less healthy.

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2 Responses to The inevitable result of the Police Commissioner elections

  1. Chris,

    You’ve managed to express, very concisely, exactly what I was feeling. One candidate in Northumbria is running on a platform of reintroducing capital punishment (though I’m fairly sure there’s nothing he could do to push that forward if elected).

    I disagree with you though that the low turnout is unimportant, since a low turnout is likely to favour extreme candidates.

  2. A month on from your original posting, it’s useful to look back at what happened. Just a few thoughts. I live near Llandudno on the Welsh coast. The “constituency” as it was established runs counter to the governments’s localism agenda. We’re a long way from Wrexham (50 miles by road), from Holyhead, from Blaenau Ffestiniog and so on.

    The successful candidate stood as an Independent. Only afterwards was it revealed that he hads been a member of the Liberal Democrats all along. Since then he has said he sees the role as only a part-time one. He is going to appoint a Chief Executive on £75k, and is considering appointing a Deputy. So we will have day-to-day PCC decisions made by an unelected and unaccountable person.

    Then we have the explosion of cronyism which I had not foreseen; new posts are being created and allies and friends being appointed to thgem. Of course, all this runs counter to any pretence of democracy.

    I’ve mentioned to a couple of people a campaign and petition to have the posts abolished, and I’ve been surprised at the positive response.

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