John Prescott vows: I'll be back!

The former Deputy Prime Minister won't be retiring, despite his humiliating defeat in the police commissioner elections last week – a process that left voters around the country cold

He was the highest-profile candidate to stand in the UK's first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, and when the dust cleared, he was the most prominent victim.

In facing up to his first election defeat for more than 40 years, John Prescott insisted it was still not time for him to retire from public life. The former deputy prime minister announced he would not stand for election again but he maintains that, at 74, his contribution to public service is far from over.

"He's already got a big job to do representing Labour in the House of Lords," a member of the Prescott team said yesterday. "You won't see him standing for a big post again, but he's not the type to put his slippers on and sit at home."

Lord Prescott's camp rejected claims that he had been "humiliated" in defeat to the Tory candidate, Matthew Grove. It claimed the make-up of the Humberside police force area amounted to a "marginal Conservative seat" which Lord Prescott actually won on the first-round vote prior to second-choice votes being redistributed. "Oh, the irony of the Tories beating a Labour heavyweight with a form of PR that they actively campaigned against in the AV referendum," Lord Prescott's son David wrote about the result yesterday.

Matthew Grove's victory was a minor compensation in the face of attacks faced by the Government over the PCC elections which saw the lowest voter peacetime turnout ever seen in a nationwide poll. David Cameron faced criticism from all sides, including his own MPs, over the failure of his flagship law and order policy to catch the nation's imagination.

The elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, announced that it will be holding an inquiry into how the elections were conducted, after the average turnout plunged below 15 per cent. Staffordshire had the lowest turnout with 11.6 per cent. One polling centre in Newport, South Wales, had no visitors at all.

Ministers said a lack of familiarity and understanding of the role of commissioners, who replace police authorities, contributed to the low turnout. But critics claimed a failure to advertise the £100m elections properly, and the decision to hold the poll on a November day, had doomed the elections to failure.

Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson said the dismal turnout was "a concern for everyone who cares about democracy" and said a "thorough review" would report to Parliament next year. "These were new elections taking place at an unfamiliar time of year, which is why we have made clear at every stage that it would be important to engage effectively with voters. The Government took a number of decisions about how to run these elections that we did not agree with," she said.

Former home secretary Charles Clarke said the organisational problems had undermined the new commissioners, and called on Labour to abolish them if it won the next election. "The fundamental constitutional and structural problems of these posts have simply been intensified by the shambolic organisation and dismal turnout," he said. "The commissioners who have been elected will have no mandate for any strategic judgement and no authority in relation to the police force in their area. They will have the power to meddle and demoralise but not the power to promote good and effective policing."

The Conservatives won the most PCC elections – 16 to Labour's 13 – but a series of former Labour ministers, dismissed as "retreads" by Home Office minister Damian Green, managed to win their elections. However, the most striking development was the fact that 12 independent candidates, including some ex-police officers, were elected – fulfilling the Government's wish of taking power over policing out of the hands of politicians.

Ann Barnes, a former police authority chair elected as the PCC for the Kent force, said it was anger over the process and not apathy that kept voters away. She said: "People wanted to exercise their democratic responsibilities and, frankly, they didn't know who was standing. This election was run disgracefully. The publicity was virtually non-existent. We are a democracy. We have been running elections for decades. What is so different about this one?"

Tory former minister Peter Luff hit out at the "many mistakes" in preparations for the elections. He said the defeated Tory candidate in his area "paid the price of disillusion with party politicians". Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said he did not believe the low turnout weakened the authority of the commissioners. He added: "The individuals have been properly elected in a democratic process and the issue of numbers is absolutely not one for chief constables."

Universities minister David Willetts said turnout would improve over time, citing the inaugural London mayoral contest in 2000. He said: "The first election to the Mayor of London had a low turnout, then it gradually grew as people realised the significance of the post."

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