In a comment on my last edition of Saturday Six, Stephen asked me for my thoughts on the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, being held tomorrow. I had intended to get this up for Monday but have been busy helping with the Bristol Mayoral campaign so here, belatedly and briefly, are some thoughts.
On the role:
Whilst I agree that the Police authorities that the PCCs are replacing are not the most democratically accountable bodies (being, as they are, selected from councillors representing the areas covered by the police force concerned, magistrates and nominated individuals), they do have the advantage of drawing on a breadth of knowledge and experience in setting Policing priorities and holding the Force to account.
Under the new system, these powers (over often large and diverse areas) will be concentrated in one individual who will be free to pander to a particular ideological dogma or a specific demographic or geographical area. Indeed, having elections to a single position will encourage this.
On the running of candidates:
Although the Lib Dems were against the positions, we did facilitate them by agreeing to them within the coalition agreement. This led to some debate as to whether we should stand candidates, back Independents or just not take part.
Given the creation of the role, I was firmly among those who felt we should stand and am disappointed that we do not have a full slate of candidates across all 41 forces in England and Wales
There are those that argue that the role should not be held by someone from a Political Party. I would argue that being independent doesn't mean that someone isn't an ideologue. Being independent doesn't mean someone won't be prone to the sorts of political pressures or influences that party candidates are either. Given the size of the deposit (£5,000) and size of area over which campaigning is required (Avon and Somerset is 1,855 square miles and covers 1.5m people), any independent candidate would require significant financial backing or personal resources. If it's the former, then you have to ask what the Quid Pro Quo is.
In our party system the elections were inevitably going to be contested on party lines. I believe we should have strong voices arguing for a Liberal approach to policing, crime reduction, reduction of offending and recidivism and active measures to work with communities to prevent crime.
On the running of the election:
It's fair to say that the elections have not exactly caught the public imagination and turnout, other than in those areas where there are by-elections or the election of a Bristol Mayor, is going to be derisory. There is, though, no threshold so we are going to have PCCs with small but legitimate mandates. Abstaining, as some advocate, will not change this - or lead to a removal of the post. A Rubicon has been passed and there will probably be no going back for at least a generation.
The single biggest mistake has been the decision to provide candidates an electoral address through the post. Instead, candidates addresses are being made available online through the choosemypcc website with this being mentioned on the polling card. Given that people will normally put their polling cards to one side when they arrive, it's no wonder that no one has a clue about the elections.
The stable door is wide open and the (police) horse has bolted. I sincerely hope that the Home Office has learnt lessons for next time, though. Paper manifestos delivered by post to every home are a must for future, along with a much better awareness campaign than the one launched this time.
On the electoral system:
The elections are being run under the Supplementary Vote system, which is also used for Mayoral races. You can select a first and second preference - your second vote will count if your first preference candidate does not come in the top two and your second preference has.
It is, not to put to fine a point on it, a bastard system - particularly in a close race. If your candidate of choice has no chance of being in the final two, then you may feel it allows you to vote with your heart as first preference and with your head for second. BUT if your candidate (or the one you would be happy to settle for) is in a close race for the top two spaces, then they have to have your first preference to even stand a chance of being in the second count. It's a system which actively encourages two-horse races and leaves electors second-guessing the result of the first preferences.
In the PCC elections, where the range of candidates is more limited this may not be as much of a problem - in the Bristol Mayoral election, with 15 candidates, it very much is a consideration.
The election is tomorrow and I would urge you to vote - you can find links to your local information and more background here.