Policing politics

Elected commissioners are here to stay. What now?
December 12, 2012

“Farce,” declared the Telegraph, “flop,” said The Times—and those were newspapers that had supported the introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners. With average voter turnout at a record low of 15 per cent, the Guardian came closest to the truth, describing November’s police commissioner elections as a half-baked solution to an ill-defined problem.

Nonetheless, 41 police commissioners are en poste across England and Wales, and it is worth considering what the political parties now do about them. The system is here. It needs to work. I suggest five basic tests by which the new commissioners can be judged, and which all politicians need to watch.

The first is public confidence in policing, which presumably the government expects to rise with the introduction of elected commissioners. But other factors—above all, significant budget cuts—will be equally important for public confidence.

A second test is whether commissioners will be able to avoid making operationally unjustifiable political calculations. Take Thames Valley, for instance, where the Conservative candidate won. Policing in this area is concentrated in Reading and Slough, where crime is most common. But how can the commissioner hope to be re-elected if Reading and Slough soak up the majority of police resources, so that heartland Tory areas further north and west do not see enough police, for which they are paying? Many of the areas that now have a commissioner are vast and politically, socially and economically varied. In areas like this, policing risks being opened up to political tribalism.

The third test is whether the introduction of commissioners threatens resources for non-local policing. Again, political considerations are the danger here. A commissioner may find that their chief constable wishes to send local police resources to support national counter-terrorism or cross-border crime. But what if a home secretary of one political party asks a commissioner of another party for police resources and is told no? What then?

The fourth test is whether commissioners can stay away from operational matters, with which they are forbidden to interfere. Also, will chief constables have the courage to disagree with their commissioner when that individual has power of arbitrary dismissal over them?

The final test is exactly the opposite. The old system of police authorities—independent panels of local people sharing responsibility for management of policing—were unwieldy but they did have one advantage. No chief constable could capture all the members. A charismatic and manipulative chief might well be able to dominate a single commissioner.

The next police commissioner elections are not until May 2016. Before that, however, comes the general election. The political parties must decide soon what to say on this subject.

The Conservatives will need their policy to produce visible reform if they are to make up for the embarrassingly low turnout in November. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, will have to decide whether they support the policy or not. At present, the party is deeply divided on the subject.

But it is the Labour party that has the most thinking to do. Both in the Commons and the Lords, Labour opposed this policy. But going into a general election promising to remove a democratic right from voters will not be easy.

Labour’s alternative proposal of directly elected police authorities (rather than individual commissioners) solves the problem that, in some places, one person alone cannot fulfil the commissioner’s job. But the risk of police politicisation in constituencies that lean strongly one way or another would still remain. (This was why the old police authorities had independent members, a reform ironically introduced by the Conservatives in the 1990s to combat politicisation.)

Last year Labour commissioned Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan police commissioner, to head an independent policy review on policing. The report is expected next year, and it’s probably too far advanced to consider the most striking question raised by November’s elections: the number of independent candidates who won. It was far more than expected: 12 independents won, compared with 16 Conservatives and 13 Labour.

The independents were almost exclusively people with real and relevant experience, like Bob Jones in the West Midlands or Ian Johnson in Gwent, respectively chairmen of the association of police authorities and of the police superintendents’ association. Voters were looking for people who could do the job.

What should Labour learn from this? The best way forward would probably be to alter the new system, rather than abolish it. Crucially, candidates should be allowed to stand only as independents. That does not mean that commissioners cannot have emerged from political careers, but that political parties should not be able to sponsor them. Now that would be real localism and an interesting manifesto proposal.