Thursday 15 November 2012 sees the first police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales outside London. Turnout is likely to be low, and some have said they will not vote in protest at the lack of information, the quality of candidates or the politicisation of policing. These are excuses, not reasons.
It’s true that the government has made some serious mistakes in running these elections. One was not to give candidates a free mailing to all homes in the area, as with council and parliamentary elections, and next time it should change this – it could do so at only a small extra cost by including statements in the booklet sent to all homes by the Electoral Commission. But if you’re online, the statements are all available through this web-site.
You might want further, independent information. I profiled the Thames Valley candidates in an article for local community newspaper Chipping Norton News. More generally, the BBC has done a great job profiling every force and candidate, which you can find through the following links: Avon and Somerset, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cleveland, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Durham, Dyfed-Powys, Essex, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Gwent, Hampshire and IoW, Hertfordshire, Humberside, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Northumbria, North Wales, North Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, South Wales, South Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Thames Valley, Warwickshire, West Mercia, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Wiltshire. (The index for its coverage is here.)
On quality of candidates, including worries that extremists may win, the government set the deposit too high at £5,000 and should cut it to the £500 used for council elections next time. This has led solid independent candidates, such as former Thames Valley police authority chairman Khan Juna, to pull out. But even so, the best way to ensure that the best available candidate wins, and extremists don’t, is to vote. Helpfully, as you get a first and second choice, you can vote for your preferred candidate first (helping them to keep their deposit) then a more realistic choice second.
Worries about the politicisation of policing would only make sense if policing wasn’t already political – and that applies at the level of individual forces. To give a couple of specific examples, the Football Supporters’ Federation says some forces police games too aggressively, while others have a positive approach. In an area I’ve covered, data released last year through parliament found big differences in the per capita numbers of ANPR cameras installed by forces, helping to produce the “significant gaps of coverage throughout the country” I wrote about this summer. In the past, local police authorities have had subterranean public profiles – as I have found when trying to get comment out of them. In future, directly-elected commissioners will have to be visible to defend or reform their forces, in the way that Boris Johnson and his policing deputy, Stephen Greenhalgh, are now clearly responsible for the Metropolitan Police.
There have been calls from former police chief constables of Warwickshire and London for people to boycott the vote. This is wrong on a number of levels. Someone boycotting a vote is indistinguishable from someone overcome by apathy – if you really want to register your disgust, a spoiled ballot makes most sense. It also sounds like special pleading by former chief constables, equivalent to Sir Humphrey Appledby (retired) telling voters to boycott the general election so his civil service successors can get on with running the country.
Thames Valley chief constable Sara Thornton has, more reasonably, expressed concern about low turnout – the solution to which is for is for people to get out and vote. As the Economist points out, each police commissioner election is going to produce a police commissioner, and if they win with very low turnouts, they may feel they don’t have to worry about public opinion. So please, if you have a vote in these elections, use it on Thursday.