With Police and Crime Commissioner elections to be held on Thursday 15 November and with cynics and detractors predicting record low turnouts, I will be voting despite some hesitation about the particular form of this innovation. For this I have to thank Sir Ian Blair, an ex-copper of the politically correct brigade who has never stood for election to public office in his life but who advised us all not to bother to vote.
I will resent and ignore the expectation that I should select my first and second choice on the ballot paper and will be voting for the one person I want to see win. I resent this slither towards proportional voting because it has to be seen as a sop to the Liberals who forced a November poll date on the country and who hanker for a voting system that would give us permanently hung parliaments and an ability for them to flip-flop endlessly between the two main parties and to secure a degree of power they do not deserve.
Enough of the process; it is going to happen; what will it look like?
A fundamental principle of the Police & Crime Commissioners reforms is the separation of responsibilities. The Commissioner sets the Policing Plan and the Police Budget; the Chief Constable alone has operational responsibility. The Commissioner has no power to direct operations or to order arrests.
Imagine within a week there is a major incident in Banbury. A resident with an AK47 takes his ex-partner and children hostage in Bretch Hill or a fire at one of the Banbury Mosques is blamed on far right pressure groups and tensions rise between different ethnic communities. The police will do all they can to contain and defuse the situation. Police spokesmen will be active in briefing the media who will be anxious to find something, anything going wrong and wholly disinterested if the policing is effective. The public or, at least, the small number who voted will be aware of this new position of Police & Crime Commissioner. So will the media, ever looking for a story and a schism. “What is he doing about this event?” they will ask. “He had our vote, he promised to make Banbury safer and look what is happening. Where is he when we need him?” Will any politician be able to say “not me, gov. It’s the Chief Constable who’s responsible”. I don’t think so. That elected Commissioner will feel the need to be on the TV screens, at the scene of the police activity and seen to be representing the community’s concerns. How will this go down with the Chief Constable? How will the media spin the slightest difference in tone or content between the Commissioner and the Chief Constable? What will the public make of two police bosses?
I don’t have any answers but I will watch events unfold as they are bound to both locally in the Thames Valley and nationally. Make no mistake the scenarios I have suggested will happen and I suspect they will be handled differently in different places mainly because of the personalities of different Commissioners and Chief Constables but also because of many other local peculiarities.
I don’t query the inadequacy of the present accountability structure that Police & Crime Commissioners are to replace. We have seen the failings of the police in Hillsborough and other key situations mainly caused by a tendency to support their own and to close ranks against outsiders. Whether tough Commissioners will be able to change this culture, break some of the Spanish practices that are rife and achieve a real improvement in law and order nationally is the question that only time will answer.
Those of you who asked me why I did not put up for the Thames Valley job may have a better idea of my reasons!