Friday, 16 November 2012

Elected Police Commissioners, Expensive Political Codswallop?

As Oscar Wilde deemed democracy as simply “the bludgeoning of the people, for the people, by the people,” I would love to learn his take on the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners. When the people have been passed the baton to decide which other people will hold to account the people who carry the batons, isn’t that just getting too many people involved?

Around 40 million adults in England and Wales are eligible to vote for commissioners in 41 police forces, although, as widely anticipated, at least 70% seem caught up in a wave of national apathy and have not actually bothered to do so. The lowest recorded electoral turnout to date was for the European Elections of 1999, so for those answering former Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair’s rallying cry to veto the vote and stay at home, the number to beat is just 23%. Those of us living in London have a reduced power to protest through non-participation however, as we have no vote to veto, the role being part of Boris Johnson’s in-box as Mayor already.

The stated aim of a Police and Crime Commissioner is not to actually commission crimes, as the title would suggest, but to engage with the public, including victims of crime, and ensure the budget is spent “where it most matters”. Now, the question of what matters most suggests an agenda, and this is where the process becomes regretfully yet predictably political. Only 54 out of the 192 candidates are not actually badge wearing brokers of a particular political persuasion, and these independent hopefuls are even less likely than their rivals to have been heard of beyond their own breakfast tables. So, in most cases, those doing the hiring and firing of the country’s top coppers will have a “where it matters most” position aligned at least in part with their respective party principles, which can hardly help what Sir Hugh Orde, Head of the association of Chief Police Officers, referred to as “inevitable tension” around “the allocation of resources”.  

Whatever eventual reality emerges from the £100 million election, it is unlikely to echo the Prime Minster’s original prescription. Falklands veteran and author Simon Weston, amongst others, pulled out of the process because it was “too political”, and Mr Cameron’s campaign for a “big job for a big local figure” seems destined to be consigned to the Big Society cul-de-sac of good intentions.

My dad entitles any trip to the polling booth as a chance to “exercise his democratic right”, and in some sense every election can be seen a symbolic affirmation of our hard-fought for freedoms. However, by Thursday, a good many of us will have voted on X-Factor, Strictly, and that carry-on up the jungle, not to mention venting pithy opinions via Facebook, text and Twitter, before using up our monthly mobile minutes on a chin-wag with a chum. We are hardly starved of having our say, so leaving hearth and HD TV for a cause few care for, is a box barely any will be ticking.

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