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What voters really think of the elections for one police commissioner

2012 November 13
by Paul Vallely

“This is not America you know,” said the man impatiently, pushing past a slightly embarrassed-looking Roy Warren as he stood clutching his curriculum vitae leaflets.  “I’m not voting. It’s ridiculous.”

Mr Warren is the only independent candidate standing in Greater Manchester in tomorrow’s elections to appoint a new police and crime commissioner. It is no easy task.  As well as the party machines of the other candidates for the post – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Ukip – he is up against not just voter apathy but voter hostility.

Turnout is predicted at a record low for any UK election when the polls open to appoint 41 of the new commissioners all across England and Wales. Standing by Mr Warren, as he lobbied keep-fit enthusiasts as they entered his local gym at Hale Country Club, you could see why.

The new commissioners are a Conservative flagship scheme to replace the nation’s old police authorities, which were made up of local dignitaries, councillors and magistrates. This most radical reform of the police service for 50 years was intended to make the police more directly accountable to the general public. The new commissioners will have the power to appoint and dismiss the local chief constable.

But the first half dozen voters Mr Warren stopped revealed the range of problems candidates – and in particular independent ones – have been facing.

“I don’t know anything about these elections,” said sports agent Matthew Southall, aged 28, “I’ve never even heard of them”.

“I only know about them because my children’s school will be closed for polling,” said Sam Jones, a 38-year-old PA, as she left the gym with her husband. “But I probably won’t vote; I don’t think I know enough about it,” she added, despite the leaflet Mr Warren had helpfully pushed into her hand.

“I’ve already voted, with a postal vote,” said Donal Murphy, 46, a plant manager. “I don’t think a police commissioner is a particularly good idea because it will politicise policing but I think you have an obligation to vote. But there’s been a disgraceful lack of information from the Government on it. I got more information on the candidates for my children’s school governor than this. So I just voted Labour, which is what I always do.”

This confirmed Roy Warren’s worst fears. A local magistrate, who was till last year chair of the Trafford bench, he spends more time sitting as a JP than he does running his property business. “The reason I stood – putting up £5,000 of my own money as a deposit – was that I did not want a politician to get the job and there were no other independents standing,” he said. His fear is that those who do bother to vote will do so on tribal party lines.

Nor can he compete with the campaigning capacity of the local political parties. Candidates are allowed to spend up to a limit of £356,204 on campaigning – a figure that provokes a hollow laugh from Mr Warren.

To cover this massive constituency of 2.6 m people he has just himself, two fellow magistrates and his daughter who does his IT. The night before she had replied to more than 300 emails from voters wanting assurances that Mr Warren did not favour police privatisation and asking if he was linked to any company likely to benefit from being awarded police contracts.

“I was able to reassure them on both counts,” he said, “ but it tells you something about the suspicion the public has for politicians”.

What baffles him most is the lack of enthusiasm and effort the Government has put into the implementation of the 2010 Tory election promise. It is funding no mail-out for his manifesto. It has imposed a £5,000 deposit which deters a diversity of independent candidates. It has chosen a dark cold November day for the poll. “There isn’t even a list of the candidates names on the polling card,” he said. “The whole thing is shabby and ill-thought out.”

According to a survey by the think-tank Policy Exchange only 34 per cent third of the public support the idea of directly-elected Police Commissioners. Another 34 per cent say they are a “bad idea” and 32 per cent “don’t know”.

The Electoral Reform Society is predicting a turn-out of just 18.5 per cent but Mr Warren reckons they’ll be lucky to get 10 per cent of voters to the polls, which will call into question the democratic legitimacy of elections which have cost the same as 3,000 new police officers would have. The only comfort for Roy Warren is that a very low turnout might favour independents like him.

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