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Why voters said No to police commissioners

2012 November 16
by Paul Vallely

I have to apologise to Tony Lloyd. After 15 years as a local MP he stood this month for the job of elected Police Commissioner where I live in Manchester. But I didn’t vote for him. Nor did I vote for the Tory party functionary, the barrister from UKIP, the ex-police inspector from the Lib Dems nor the independent magistrate who stood because he believed the job of overseeing the local police force should not go to a politician. I didn’t vote for any of them. Indeed for the first time in my life I didn’t vote at all.

This is because I believe that elected police commissioners are a bad idea. It is not just that they are a waste of money and an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. My suspicion that they constitute the worst kind of shallow populism was confirmed by the TV ads the Government put out to frighten an unenthusiastic electorate into voting. Graphic depictions of yobs punching commuters, fly-tippers shouting abuse and a car wing mirror being kicked off all feed the climate of fear which already grips so many citizens with disproportionate and unrealistic fears about crime. Nonsense like this from the Government cynically exploits such psychological debilitation for political advantage.

It is not the only example. The last Conservative party conference came up with one of the most frightening pieces of populism of recent times with the proposal by the Home Secretary Teresa May that we should let victims choose from a “menu of punishments” to be set by the new police crime commissioners. The proposal is intended to address the feeling of powerlessness experienced by victims of antisocial behaviour when they or their property is attacked. They feel, the Tory politician told her conference crowd, that because they don’t get reparation they are excluded from the criminal justice process.

Now restorative justice is a good thing. It can help ensure that both victim and offender are properly engaged and that offenders don’t just say sorry but fully understand the impact of their behaviour and make amends. But allowing victims to choose punishments takes us psychologically down the path of vigilantism. And it undermines a key principle of British justice which is that crime does not just damage the attacked individual but tears at the very social fabric – and therefore requires an appropriate response from society as a body.

But if crime does violence against the common good it is vital that society guards against the risk that any attempt to repair a rent in the social fabric does not create a fresh one. It is no coincidence that those measures which are known to reduce re-offending – reducing truancy and school exclusion, improving youth employment, tackling homelessness, promoting youth activity programmes, curbing drug and alcohol misuse and promoting measures to support families in distress – are all essentially social rather than directed at the individual. A dialectic between the rights of the individual and the rights of society is essential to criminal justice. But so is a vigilance against forgetting the principle, summed up in the formula Regina v Bloggs, that any crime is an offence against us all.

Of course the police need to be accountable. Recently emerged evidence on the doctoring of police notebooks after the Hillsborough football disaster and the violence against striking miners at Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire reveal how corrupt an unaccountable police force can become, not to mention historical evidence of criminal practices and cover-ups in the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad and in the Metropolitan Police. But will elected police Commissioners improve police accountability?  And how can you increase the democratic influence upon chief constables without undermining their independence?

It is hard to see how a single individual will achieve greater scrutiny than the range of expertise contained within most current police authorities. Indeed the risk of one individual entering into an over-cosy relationship with a chief constable is now higher – as is its obverse, the prospect of personality clashes and a state of permanent conflict between commissioner and chief police officer. It could be far easier for a manipulative chief constable to pull the wool over the eyes of their commissioner which would reduce rather than increase accountability. The old authorities were also required to contain representatives of all political parties, even where the local council was a longstanding one-party state. The election of commissioners on party political tickets could lead to greater politicisation of the police. It might have been better to disallow anyone who has held a public position with a political party in the past decade from standing. Local politics is already far too influenced by national agendas.

How a vote once every five years will improve all this is hard to see, particularly since the neighbourhoods where crime is highest are those where the local community is least likely to vote. The public need to know that the police will not be most active in areas where people are more likely to vote. Independent policing is about protecting the whole community, not just those who show up in the polling booth.

The key problem is that the Government is, as ever, attacking symptoms not causes. Our society is constantly creating new regulations, targets, audits and performance indicators to compensate for a growing lack of trust in modern life. But such measures, ironically – as the philosopher Onora O’Neill pointed out in her 2002 Reith lectures – seem to reduce trust, rather than increase it. And the exacerbate the modern tendency to play by the letter of the law rather than its spirit. And that is not something another election can address.

Third Way magazine

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