Three months tomorrow, voters in England and Wales will go to the polls to choose local police and crime commissioners – at least, some voters will. The prevailing impression is of widespread apathy, with a turnout perhaps below 20 per cent. And the closer the elections come, the more flaws see the light of day.
The latest is the subject of a protest letter, submitted by independent candidates, who object to the lack of funding for mailshots. They fear, first, that their details will not reach those without an internet connection, and second that those candidates backed by political parties will gain an unfair advantage.
Their complaint comes just a week after three would-be candidates, including the Falklands veteran Simon Weston, said they would have to stand down because of juvenile brushes with the law. Some called for the rules to be amended, but such a move looks unlikely at this late stage.
It is possible to regard both these strictures as mere hiccups in a process that is otherwise proceeding smoothly. But the risk is that they could deter, or even exclude, some of the very people best equipped to become commissioners. Someone with a minor juvenile offence on his record, who never again turned to crime, could make an excellent commissioner, as could a public-spirited individual with no party allegiance. Without such people, the unfortunate consequence could be that the new boards – due to replace the existing police authorities – are dominated by political nominees and retired senior police officers. This would go a long way towards defeating the already dubious purpose of the new boards.
The idea of elected police commissioners has been borrowed from the United States and, like many such borrowings, it presumed a degree of commonality that mostly does not exist. At the time when elections for police commissioners became a Conservative manifesto promise, however, they seemed to offer a solution to a particular problem: the widespread sense that the police did not share the public's priorities and were insufficiently responsive to ordinary people's concerns. Why, for instance, were so many crimes, such as burglaries, deemed insoluble and unworthy of investigation? Why were the police seemingly doing so little about anti-social behaviour? Why were there so few police on the beat, when so many could suddenly be fielded to patrol demonstrations or football matches?
The argument was that elected commissioners, with the power to hire and fire chief constables, would ensure that police served their communities in the way those communities wanted. Two years on, however, many police forces, including the Met, have heeded public complaints and are adapting their practices. What is more, after half a dozen No votes in mayoral referendums, it is not at all clear either that the public has much appetite for more local elected devolution, or that there are enough willing and suitable candidates for the new posts.
Even if there were, however, the dangers of electing police commissioners should be obvious: politicisation and populism. Still worse, perhaps, is that such a change could make it more difficult for any government to tackle the chief shortcoming of the police, which is its fragmentation. It is absurd that there are 41 police authorities in England and Wales. These multiple power-centres are expensive; they undermine efficiency and complicate cooperation. The only reform worth the name is the creation of a genuinely national police force. If the elections turn out to be a damp squib, the time will be ripe for a radical re-think, and that is where its focus should be.