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Why I won’t be voting for a police commissioner

2012 November 11

I am about to do something silly, in the estimation of the government’s Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, at any rate. I am not going to vote on Thursday in the elections for the nation’s first police and crime commissioners. When Ian Blair, the former head of Scotland Yard, suggested that voters boycott these unnecessary and counter-productive polls he was told by Mr. Grayling that his advice was “silly”. I disagree which is why, for the first time in my adult life, I will be spoiling my ballot paper.

Lord Blair, of course, could be dismissed as a man with a personal grievance. After all he was sacked as head off the Metropolitan Police by the man who was, in effect, the prototype elected police commissioner, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. But my objections are both principled and pragmatic.

Anyone who has spent any time in the United States is aware of the dangerous of politicising policing. I was in Huntsville Texas once when the local sheriff was running for re-election on a platform demanding the execution of an unpopular character on death row who — after the lethal injection was administered — turned out to be innocent. You can’t win them all, the old lawman no doubt stoically reflected.

Anyone who thinks we Brits wouldn’t go in for such gun-toting populism should look at the tv ads the government has been running to frighten the nation into voting. Yobs punch commuters. Fly-tippers scream abuse. A car wing mirror is kicked off. We live in a wild and dangerous place, the message screeched, and we need to do something about it. Crime has been down in recent years but the fear of crime will suffice.

There is all manner — if you will excuse the Dixon of Dock Green pun — of problems with a police force controlled by a politician who trades on fear to get re-elected. The crimes about which voters get most passionate are not necessarily those which are most damaging or dangerous. Domestic violence, sex trafficking and organised crime are not so visible as intimidating youths on street corners. Social scientists reveal that neighbourhoods where crime is highest are also those where people are least likely to turn out to vote. That will create subliminal pressure to concentrate policing in more middle class areas.

Ministers know all this but happily subordinate it to the shallow populism we saw at the last Tory conference where Teresa May touted the idea that we should let victims choose the punishment meted out to criminals — a dangerous step down the path to vigilantism in violation of the ancient judicial principle that a crime does not just hurt its immediate victim but damages the very social fabric. That is why society, rather than individuals, enacts justice and exacts punishment.

No-one disputes that the British police need to be made more accountable. The names Hillsborough, Orgreave, Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and the evidence before Leveson constitute a lamentable litany of evidence to that. But will a single elected commissioner hold a chief constable to account better than a police authority of 17 local worthies, magistrates and councillors representing all political parties?

There is far greater risk with elected commissioners that a crafty chief constable will be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a single individual, or develop too cosy a relationship, or lock horns in a power-struggle or personality clash. The notion that the commissioner will be responsible for strategy and the chief constable for operational matters will cause all kinds of confusion in practice. And how can one commissioner seriously represent as many as a million people in a force area which encompasses as many as 21 parliamentary constituencies?

That is not all. The size of that task means that almost all the candidates now come from the main political parties. Independents have had difficulty raising the £5,000 election deposit and do not have the resources to campaign across such huge areas, especially since the Government has refused to finance a mailshot from them to voters, telling them to use the internet, effectively disenfranchising the seven million elderly and rural folk the Electoral Commission says do not have regular online access.

Party political commissioners will increase the likelihood that police chiefs might discourage political investigations into cash-for-honours, cash-for-access or MPs expenses. So-called democratic influence upon chief constables might come at the expense of undermining their independence. No wonder 60 per cent of voters say they do not want party politicians in charge of the police.

And there are murkier influences, like the candidate in Lincolnshire who resigned recently after claims he was supported by American right-wing lobbyists and companies backing the outsourcing of police work to private companies. Another candidate has been financially supported by a trade union which represents thousands of police civilian staff. That could create conflicts of interest if a decision must be made on the balance of police civilians versus police officers in a force.

Improving police integrity is matter of changing culture rather than systems. Spending a whopping £75m on this new system at a time of public austerity is a mad diversion from the real but much tougher task in hand. The only way that the public can ram that fact home to the Government is by not voting, a tactic with which, it seems, many others agree: the Electoral Reform Society is predicting a turn-out of just 18.5 per cent — a percentage Tory ministers would proclaim as illegitimate if so few voted in a union strike ballot. Perhaps, for once, the old anarchist slogan makes perfect political sense: Don’t vote; it only encourages them.

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