We are in north Hull on a damp October evening. Sensible people are in their homes with the central heating notched up. Paul Davison sits in a community centre surrounded by empty chairs. Only his three people – his sons – have turned out to keep him company. Oh, and one member of the press, yours truly. Even putting it politely, it would be a massive exaggeration to call this a public meeting. The independent candidate for Humberside's first Police and Crime Commissioner has failed to engage the public in a way that can only be described as heroic. By the end of the evening only one person, not compelled by work or blood fealty, turns up to hear what the former chief superintendent – retired this year after 30 years on the Humberside force – has to say.
In less than a month, local voters will get the chance to elect Mr Davison as commissioner. David Cameron last week held out the exciting promise that it would "put people in charge of policing". His excitement hasn't reached North Bransholme. Most people would be hard pressed to name any of the independent candidates on the slate alongside Mr Davison, although one of them is a former Tory MP. Rivals from Ukip and the major parties have also failed to dent public perception, with one exception: the area's best-known "professional politician", Baron Prescott of Kingston upon Hull.
Plain old "John Prescott", as he prefers to be known in his campaign literature, has elevated a local squabble into a national debate and become, unsurprisingly for the Cameron camp, the epitome of what they do not want from the new system. The PM's personal policing adviser, Lord Wasserman, last week warned voters that if they failed to turn out "they'll be kicking themselves that they allowed John Prescott to win".
Lord Prescott was in robust form as he put his case on Friday: "When I put my name up, the Government used me as an example, that they had people of substance standing. Now they've changed their minds; we're not 'people of substance', we are politicians interfering."
The former deputy PM and Labour cabinet minister's strategy, which recalls Labour's initial opposition to the plan, has been to present the vote not as a verdict on the future of local policing but as "a referendum on the Government's incompetence". On Friday, he told a sparse crowd in the centre of Hull: "It's not just about the PCC, it's as much about keeping the police public as it is about the health service and local council."
The strategy recognises that he is scrabbling for support in a diverse area that extends beyond his traditional power-base in Hull. It also acknowledges that whoever wins will do little more than manage decline: one in five of Humberside's police officers will be gone by 2015.
To be fair, Humberside is not the only area underwhelmed by the –supposedly – radical shake-up. The election of commissioners to plan strategy and spend the multimillion pound budgets of 41 forces in England and Wales was to impose some democratic control on policing. But the plan is already half submerged by political wrangling; rows over cuts; forced withdrawals and complaints over the scant impact the new commissioners are likely to make.
Despite the Government's claim that the new system would wrest power from the political elite, candidates are dominated by MPs and local councillors. The voters are likely to vote, or not, with their feet: the Electoral Reform Society warns turnout could be as low as 18.5 per cent. Last week, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Blair urged people not to vote on 15 November: "because that is the only way we are going to stop this". But Mr Davison was determined to be upbeat. "I think this could be an opportunity to make big improvements in the way the police work in this area," he said. "It is the biggest change in policing for nearly 200 years, but I don't think many people have noticed yet."
Humberside should have been the perfect testing ground for the brave new world of policing; a huge force with a troubled history; low performance ratings relative to other forces, and facing huge cuts in numbers.
The police themselves worry that more jobs will move to the private sector. "We have concerns about politicians being involved in policing, but it is more worrying that private firms might be able to take contracts for services like running police stations," said Steve Garmston, chairman of Humberside Police Federation. "Policing is not a business, it is a service; introducing commissioners should not be a way of making forces run like businesses."
In the frame
John Prescott (Labour)
The former deputy prime minister pledges to resist job cuts, give better support to the victims of crime, and fund a drive against alcohol-related offences through a "late-night levy" on late-opening problem pubs.
Michael Mates (Conservative)
Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
Veteran former British Army officer and Conservative MP, who resigned as a minister over his relationship with the fugitive businessman Asil Nadir. His policing priorities are: crimes of violence; all crimes involving alcohol and drugs; and rural crime.
Tony Lloyd (Labour)
One of a number of former Labour ministers contesting the election. Gave up his seat to stand for the job in his home city. Pledges to resist "privatisation" and to prioritise gun, gang and organised crime.
Vera Baird (Labour)
A former Solicitor General who lost her seat in Redcar at the last election. Policing priorities include violence against women, anti-social behaviour, neighbourhood policing, and to "fight the Government's police cuts".
Ann Barnes (Independent)
A former teacher who has presided over consecutive falls in crime during six years in charge of Kent Police Authority. Promises to consult on policy with local police boards, make it easier for victims to track their investigation, and appoint a Youth Commissioner.Reuse content