Long time, no ill-considered diatribe. Well it’s alright, the pond-life has finally sorted out its leadership, so now it’s time to look closer to home. To look at the police station, in particular.
It may surprise many of you that we are having an election on Thursday. Yes, THIS THURSDAY. That is in FIVE DAYS from publishing.
Electing local Police and Crime Commissioners isn’t the same as electing the most powerful man in the world, but it still seems that both the media and the general populace are displaying unrivalled levels of apathy. In fact, rather than focusing on the elections and candidates, half the news stories I see are simply demonstrations of how apathetic other Brits are. Where the radio, magazines and TV was a live with information and intricate details about Americans we have no voting power over, there’s barely a whimper of pub-banter about the coppers.
Why? Why does the Electoral Reform Society predict turnout of only 18.5%? Why do over 20% of the actual PCC Candidates question the process? Why does Yvette Cooper call it ‘a shambles’? Why do bloggers such as Nottingham Iconoclast, Brighton Politics Blogger, and Top of the Cops despair?
This post is going to look into the reasons people are opposing, or ignoring, the PCC elections. I will swiftly follow it up with another post telling you what to think and how to vote, because I’m friendly like that.
But for now, criticism:
Police and Crime Commissioners will be representing local policing bodies, giving them a remit significantly larger than an MP (over 1 000 000 people in several cases). However, since the UK is geared towards ‘central government’, and pre-existing local government (i.e. councils) is tied to the main political parties, this is the first time Britain is facing a truly ‘local’ election.
And the infrastructure simply isn’t in place. Local media (radio, newspapers etc) do not have substantial audiences. National media cannot possibly hope to cover the different issues of 40 different contests, especially when even the Party candidates fail to present an over-arching policy line.
Besides, national media is spending most of its time telling us how apathetic we are, not raising the issues. The government, despite spending over £100 000 000 on this election, has done a terrible job getting anyone interested. I’ve only just heard of Damien Green, the Policing Minister – and politics is my heroin. Well. Tobacco is my heroin, but I’m quitting.
Choosing Your Stick
Lots of people I’ve talked to oppose the police in general, and for this reason don’t like the idea of voting for them. This may be because of recent and historic scandals (e.g. Hillsborough) and because of the terribly low prosecution success rate for police-crime. The argument follows that voting for any police body legitimises that body’s subsequent actions. It reminds me a little of the scene in Good Will Hunting, wherein Matt Damon remembers his abusive father offering him the choice to be beaten with a belt, a stick or a wrench.
The whole thing is costing some £100 000 000. Many (Cooper included) argue that the money would be better spent on…you know…policing. Especially given that the new PCCs will be facing over 12% budget cuts.
The public are not well-informed about crime. I am not well informed about crime. Crime is a complicated issue. This means there’s a serious incentive for candidates to resort to promising parochial, ineffective promises which will increase ‘visible’ policing (i.e. “more bobbies on the beat” or “more Police Community Support Officers”) to the detriment of serious national policing. There are only very weak measures to ensure PCCs work together, creating a threat to cross-border problems such as gang-orchestrated drug movements, brothels/sex trafficking, gun importation and the populist’s heretofore go-to scaremonger, counter-terrorism. Where does the National Crime Agency fit in?
This basically becomes the Spider Man problem. Petty crime (house burglaries, muggings) might go down, but there’s a fear that serious crime will have free rein.
Whilst the change was justified in terms of accountability and the expectations that many Independents would win, this is unlikely. Labour and the Conservatives are each fielding candidates in every constituency, and they have much much much better funded and better organised electioneering machinery than most Independents. There is therefore a justified fear that the election will dissolve into a base political popularity contest.
The Justice Minister will continue to control prosecutions. The Home Office will continue to control borders. PCCs will have some powers over local funding, but will be basically funded by the government (hence the budget cuts). Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, points out that there will be “inevitable tension” between PCCs, the government, and senior police officers (Chief Constables) who have to actually carry out policy. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20258446 ]
I’ve never really liked the term ‘mandate’ and don’t think it matters, but lots of people do. In many of the elections, there are lots of candidates. Devon & Cornwall have ten. This means a candidate could theoretically win with 11% of the vote. Remember that only a projected 18.5% of people are voting. This means a PCC could theoretically have been elected by a whopping 2% of the people s/he represents.**
If you don’t already know my pessimistic thesis about practical democracy, it’s summarised here and here. In this election, at least, it appears many agree with me. We simply don’t understand the issues enough to vote. What qualities does a candidate for a brand new position need? If this is a professional post, shouldn’t the police be choosing a professional? Do ‘bobbies on the beat’ actually help at all, or just reassure people? Was the old system really so unaccountable?
Regular readers will be aware of my distaste for rhetoric. This election is full of it, especially on candidates’ websites and manifestoes. All three of my constituency’s candidates’ manifestoes lead with the promise to “reduce crime”. Great. Well done. Have my vote. Have a doughnut.
“Zero tolerance” and so on are meaningless. Lib Dem naysayer Baroness Shirley Williams fears we’ll become more akin to America, where many states have democratic involvement in justice.
“I’ve spent many years of my life in America, and I think you do get people who play to the ‘hang ’em, flog ’em’ brigade.”
“If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” – John Smith, 36, Orpington, Fictionshire
The police force may not be perfect, but it is very difficult to see any public enthusiasm or impetus for this change. Indeed, a cynic might argue that the only reason the Tories have passed it is to disassociate future police spending cuts and procedural failures from their government. Ah, cynics…
All these reasons are fair. I think there’s a bigger one, though:
CRIME ISN’T JUST A POLICE ISSUE
In fact, policing might not even be a significant player in crime. We’ve already touched on the importance of the justice system, the prison system and border controls. But guess what? Crime happens in society. The police do not solve crime.
– As a great supporter of Graham Greene MP’s Early Intervention Programme, I think that the best long-term plan to sort crime is to help those with few life-chances towards better education, better mental and physical health, stronger communities and genuine job creation. I.e. the elusive carrot.
– Crime rose from 1945-c.1995 in most developed countries. Nobody is quite sure why it dropped then, but policing probably didn’t play a big part. The Freakonomics guys argue that legalised abortion might be a factor, since it meant potential-persons who would otherwise be born into hostile, crime-breeding circumstances were instead not-born.
These elections are pretty ill-thought-out. There is a substantial argument for abstaining, and hoping for a U-turn. Equally, there’s a substantial argument for getting really involved in the next five days, and working out who’s your best candidate. I will deal with that in my follow-up post shortly. Possibly tonight.
* Home Office research in the mid-80s concluded: “A patrolling police officer could expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary taking place roughly once every eight years. Even then they may not even realise that the crime is taking place.” [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17704354 ]
** I say ‘s/he’, but honestly very few women are standing. Well done Britain.
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