Like much of my activism in the Labour party, I became involved in a police commissioner campaign through a combination of personal connections, sense of obligation and good old-fashioned guilt. When it comes to using innate guilt as a weapon to ensure good works, the Catholic Church has nothing on the Labour party.
So yesterday, I spent much of the day in Warwickshire, supporting James Plaskitt in his campaign to be Warwickshire Police Commissioner.
As always, election day had its moments of comedy.
For one long stretch the only person I motivated to go to the polls was a young man who came bounding out of the house effing and blinding about the Labour campaign, which had apparently deluged him with leaflets and phone calls. We were mildly astonished by this, since even we wouldn’t have described our campaign in such glowingly effective terms. Sadly, he departed to the polls swearing that our sterling efforts had turned him against us.
On top of that, our campaign team was reduced by half due to dog bites, and we performed the traditional dusk wander around a poorly lit and oddly laid out estate, peering for the right doors to knock up, wondering which genius of a town planner had decided the best place for No 32 was opposite no 1 and 3 and next to No 12 of a different street.
These are the normal rhythms of an election day, including a decamp to the “campaign centre” (A councillor’s front room) when it got dark in order to do phone calling of voters and drink tea.
Yet yesterday, even the most indefatigable of us were regularly deflated by the reports from the polling stations.
Thirty people out of a thousand voting in one polling district by lunchtime. Another polling station struggling to make it into the fifties by the ‘after work rush’. It wasn’t much of a consolation that our small team was probably responsible for a fairly large proportion of those votes.
So what went wrong? Who should we blame?
I didn’t particularly want elected Police Commissioners, but I could see the localist, democratic argument for them.
You’d have one elected person accountable for the non-operational management of policing and the local justice system. Someone who could pick up emerging issues in police management, be the voice of communities and victims of crime, and, if done well, fulfill a “Tribune” role – making sure Police constable and lower ranks had a way to represent their views outside the command hierarchy, which might well be useful in improving force morale.
Further, I thought the difference between a good police commissioner and a bad one would be pretty significant, so felt it was worth putting the effort I could into getting a good one elected.
Most people however, either didn’t know what a police commissioner was, and to the extent they did, thought it was a pretty bad idea. Often this was because they thought it would be more expensive that the existing police authority, or that it would involve a politician doing operational policing. Now, neither of these were necessarily true. James’s campaign pledged both to cut the running costs of the police authority and keep party politics out of operational policing1.
Unfortunately, it was very hard to communicate this, and here, the government have to take a lot of the blame.
Political parties are not well-funded juggernauts. For the most part we stagger from election to election on reserves of goodwill, a few donations and our members sense of obligation. For all out efforts, the truth is that trying to explain to the whole electorate what this new positions were, what powers they would have, why it was worth voting was pretty much beyond us. The levels of disinterest and scepticism overwhelmed our resources.
We did manage to get leaflets out, after a herculean effort from incredibly committed and energetic people. The Tories had a bit more money, it’s true, but they used this mostly to replace their declining organisational base, placing ads in local papers instead of delivering leaflets.
None of this was helped by the refusal of the government to allow a mailshot to the electorate, either explaining what this election was all about and why it was worthwhile, or enclosing information about the candidates, as you get, in the European, London Mayor, and General Elections.
Finally, holding the election in the middle of November was awful for the electorate, who were asked to vote in cold and dark, but also for political parties, who already had local elections in the previous and the coming May to contend with.
For many activists, the spring election season is when holiday from work is planned, when time spent on committees and community groups is scaled down a little. Holding a brand new election in November is stretching activists to their limit, especially in campaigns that are far larger in scale than most of us in British politics are used to.
I’m angry about the Police Commissioner Election, not because I think the whole idea is a joke, but because in the course of the campaign, I came to believe that a Police Commissioner could make a real difference.
Yet it felt the entire structure of the campaign was designed to make it as hard as possible for any political party to communicate this.
In the Labour party, there were obviously dark suspicions that suppressing voter turn-out was a deliberate approach from the government that might suspect it has a better chance to win core turnout elections.
I want to believe that isn’t true.
If the government really believes in Police Commissioners, I want the government to be as angry and embarrassed by the turnout we endured yesterday as I am.
I want them to feel guilty about the voters who were left ill-informed, be apologetic to the Commissioners who will now face questions of legitimacy.
Most of all, I want them to fix this for next, time, or there won’t be a next time, as the call to abolish the posts will overwhelm any good they could do.
So if you really believe in Police Commissioners, here are some simple fixes.
Communicate what they are to voters.
Hold the elections at a sensible time of year.
Allow a mailshot to all voters from each candidate.
This won’t make the elections Obama-Romney, but they will help stop them being a farce.
- and besides, the Oath of office meant Commissioners have to be politically independent in these matters [↩]