Well the elections for the Police Commissioners are now over and on Thursday I did what I have done regularly over the last 50 or so years and trotted off to the polling station and made a mark on the voting form.
But this time it was different and for the first time ever I didn't put a cross into any of the boxes. For my reasons see below the fold.
The first of my doubts is “Why Change?” The politicians, who are kept well informed by disgruntled members of the public, will know the more visible problems – and will be used to promising that “something needs to be done about it”. They fail to realise that idealistic solutions merely shuffle the difficulties round, and that the simpler and cheaper solution of patching up the worse problems will usually be the quickest and easiest solution. Rushing through inadequately assessed revolutionary changes for ideological reasons, without proper long-term pilots, simply produces new unanticipated crisis areas.
The second relates to representation of the public interests. Policing involves all sections of the community and while the composition of the old Police Authorities was not ideal they included people who had a wide range of experience of life, and some at least, were elected councillors. When issues came up there would usually be at least one person who had first hand knowledge of the area under consideration. No one person, however brilliant, can have that breadth of knowledge what is going on in all the different social contexts in a population (in the case of Hertfordshire) of a million people. Replacing a committee of people with varied backgrounds, coming from different parts of the country, with a single individual can only mean that the interests of the wider public will be less well represented.
I am also very concerned about the introduction of politics into policing. I want the best person available to do the job, with a clear understanding that they should be genuinely independent of political influences. If they are elected with a political label they cannot be seen to be independent, and in any case I don't want elections to include obvious incompetents simply because all the main parties consider they must have a candidate. Because many people vote zombie-like along political lines, rather than for the individual candidate's qualities, one can expect that some individual Police Commissioners trust selected to be bad at their job.
Further to the last point I consider the introduction of political police commissioners as the thin end of a wedge, where judges, school headmasters, hospital consultants are elected from lists of people who think that membership of a named political party is more important than their competence.
So why was a change made which reduced that influence of the public, by reducing a committee with many different skills and experiences to a single politically biased candidate – under the name of “democracy”. May I suggest one reason. If you have a single person in charge, rather than a committee, it is far easier for the government to apply pressure to become a “yes man” for government imposed policy If the police commissioner is a a member of the government party he will be expected to “conform”. If he is a member of an Opposition party the Government can dismiss his complaints because “he is only complaining because he supports the opposition”. Police Authorities many have been rather spineless in the past – but the current legislation actually makes it hard for the Police Commissioner to whistleblow that “We cannot provide the service our public wants because of the Government imposed funding rules.”
And finally the whole conduct of the election – and the way in which it was made very hard for genuine independent candidates to stand – and which also excluded otherwise well-qualified candidate because of a comparatively minor misdemeanour many years ago – was seriously flawed. In Hertfordshire less than 15% voted, and less than half these put the eventual winner as their first choice. In addition well over 3000 people (including me) specifically went to the polling station to record a “spoilt ballot”. The pathetic excuses made by the Prime Minister and Theresa May was no more than an admission that they knew in advance that it would be a farce. It is not democracy if you plan an election in such a way that you know only a few people will vote.