A thin blue line at the voting booths

The minister is upbeat, but low turnouts could derail the first police commissioner elections

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The Independent Online

Tomorrow's first elections for police chiefs will herald a "very radical" change in forces' relationship with the public they protect and serve, the Policing minister forecast last night.

More than 190 candidates are standing in elections in 41 police authority areas in England and Wales outside London, where the Mayor, Boris Johnson, has responsibility for the Metropolitan Police.

Damian Green put a brave face on suggestions that turn-out in the contests for police and crime commissioners could fall as low as 15 per cent in some parts of the country, arguing the voters were responding to publicity campaigns promoting the elections.

A YouGov survey for Channel 5 News last night found that only one in four people said they would definitely vote – and 70 per cent could not name a single candidate.

Mr Green told The Independent that the policing landscape was about to change out of all recognition in the coming months. "There will be much greater police accountability and much greater awareness among the public of the arguments around policing. That will be really good for the standard of policing we get."

Mr Green was scathing about the failure of police authorities to be better known by the public. "The Home Office did a survey that found only 7 per cent of people had heard of police authorities. I was surprised the figure was so high," he said. "Already quantums more people have heard of police commissioners."

He acknowledged the campaigns for police commissioners had been relatively slow to get off the ground, but said: "Public consciousness is much higher than it was six weeks ago. The turning point was the Home Office advertising campaign, which was running in the middle of Downton Abbey and The X-Factor."

He was speaking as a study for The Independent suggests Labour could win the biggest share of the vote tomorrow but still end up with fewer commissioners than the Conservatives.

John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, found that if voting in the 41 police authority areas reflects Labour's 10-point lead in opinion polls, Labour would win 20 of the contests and the Tories 21. This is mainly because Labour is likely to pile up votes in metropolitan areas, while Tory support in rural areas will be more "efficient" in translating into victories.

The elections will use the supplementary vote system, which allows voters to make a first and second choice. If a candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, they are elected. If no candidate secures a majority, the top two enter a second round and the others are eliminated. The second preference votes of people whose first choice has been eliminated are added to the top two's first round votes to decide the winner.

Responding to Professor Curtice's analysis, Mr Green said: "That's nothing to do with the voting system, it's to do with the size of the force areas. It's rather like parliamentary constituencies – you have to deal with the hand you are given."

He said he was not worried about the calibre of candidates – and insisted it was too early to write off the prospects of independents. "Everybody is taking it very seriously; they are doing lots of background homework. Some of them have run very big organisations."

All in a day's work: Commissioners' duties

Police and Crime Commissioners will become publicly accountable for the efficiency and performance of their local forces, replacing police authorities.

Hiring and firing

They will have the power to hire and fire their Chief Constable and hold him or her to account for the running of their force. They will set police budgets and, after consulting with Chief Constables and community groups, will set out a five-year "police and crime plan" for their areas reflecting local priorities.

Open to scrutiny

Commissioners can make grants to groups aside from the police. They will be scrutinised and questioned by police and crime panels, comprising representatives from each local authority in a police force area.