Why I won't be voting for a police commissioner

Anyone who has spent time in the US is aware of the dangers of politicised policing

Related Topics

I am about to do something silly, in the estimation of the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. I am not going to vote on Thursday in the elections for the nation's first police and crime commissioners. When Ian Blair, the former head of Scotland Yard, suggested that voters boycott these unnecessary and counter-productive polls he was told by Mr Grayling that his advice was "silly". I disagree, which is why, for the first time in my adult life, I will be spoiling my ballot paper.

Lord Blair, of course, could be dismissed as a man with a personal grievance. After all, he was sacked as head of the Metropolitan Police by the man who was, in effect, the prototype elected police commissioner, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. But my objections are both principled and pragmatic.

Anyone who has spent any time in the US is aware of the dangers of politicising policing. I was in Huntsville, Texas, once when the local sheriff was running for re-election by demanding the execution of an unpopular character on death row who – after the lethal injection was administered – turned out to be innocent.

Anyone who thinks we Brits wouldn't go in for such gun-toting populism should look at the TV ads the Government has been running to frighten the nation into voting. Yobs punch commuters. Fly-tippers scream abuse. A car wing mirror is kicked off. We live in a wild and dangerous place, the message screeches, and we need to do something about it. Crime has been down in recent years but the fear of crime will suffice.

There are all manner of problems with a police force controlled by a politician who trades on fear to get re-elected. The crimes about which voters get most passionate are not always the most damaging or dangerous. Domestic violence, sex trafficking and organised crime are not so visible as youths on street corners. Social scientists reveal that neighbourhoods where crime is highest are also those where people are least likely to turn out to vote. That will create subliminal pressure to concentrate policing in more middle-class areas.

Ministers know all this but happily subordinate it to the shallow populism we saw at the last Tory conference, where Theresa May touted the idea that we should let victims choose the punishment meted out to criminals – a dangerous step towards vigilantism in violation of the ancient judicial principle that a crime does not just hurt its immediate victim but damages the very social fabric. That is why society, rather than individuals, enacts justice and exacts punishment.

No one disputes that the British police need to be made more accountable. The names Hillsborough, Orgreave, Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, as well as the evidence before Leveson, constitute a lamentable litany. But will a single elected commissioner hold a chief constable to account better than a police authority of 17 local worthies, magistrates and councillors representing all political parties?

There is far greater risk with elected commissioners that a crafty chief constable will be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a single individual, or develop too cosy a relationship, or lock horns in a power-struggle. The notion that the commissioner will be responsible for strategy and the chief constable for operational matters will cause all kinds of confusion. And how can one commissioner represent as many as a million people in a force area of up to 21 parliamentary constituencies?

That is not all. The size of that task means that almost all candidates come from the main political parties. Independents have had difficulty raising the £5,000 election deposit and do not have the resources to campaign across such huge areas, especially since the Government has refused to finance a mailshot from them to voters, telling them instead to use the internet, effectively disenfranchising the seven million elderly and rural folk the Electoral Commission says do not have regular online access.

Party-political commissioners will increase the likelihood that police chiefs might discourage political investigations into cash-for-honours, cash-for-access or MPs' expenses. No wonder 60 per cent of voters say they do not want party politicians in charge of the police.

And there are murkier influences, such as the candidate in Lincolnshire who resigned after claims he was supported by right-wing US lobbyists, and firms backing the outsourcing of police work to private companies. Another has been financially supported by a trade union that represents thousands of police civilian staff. That could create conflicts of interest if a force must decide on the balance of civilians versus officers.

Improving police integrity is a matter of changing cultures, not systems. Spending £75m on this new system at a time of austerity is a mad diversion from the much tougher task in hand. The only way the public can ram that fact home to the Government is by not voting, a tactic with which, it seems, many others agree: the Electoral Reform Society predicts a turn-out of just 18.5 per cent – a percentage Tory ministers would proclaim as illegitimate if so few voted in a union strike ballot. Perhaps, for once, the old anarchist slogan makes perfect political sense: Don't vote; it only encourages them.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas