On Police Commissioners, you turned out in your hundreds to vote - but what were you voting for?

Labour's MP for Rhondda on voter turnout, women bishops, and why we've got to get the balance between Parliament and courts right in deporting Abu Qatada

Chris Bryant
Friday 16 November 2012 19:10
Abu Qatada is driven away after being refused bail at Tuesday's hearing
Abu Qatada is driven away after being refused bail at Tuesday's hearing

For the past few weeks, MPs have been flitting around the country trying to drum up support for a set of elections that nobody asked for. I’ve been in Narberth, in Newcastle, in Norwich and this week, just to avoid too much alliteration, in Stafford (as well as Corby and Cardiff South).

I doubt my presence made the blindest bit of difference, but if anyone tells you they experienced a rising tide of apathy as it came to polling day, they’re fibbing. Yes, the turnout was shocking. In one ward locally, which normally polls high, fewer than one in 20 eligible voters turned out. In Caerphilly two ballot boxes returned empty. And there were countless ballot papers spoilt deliberately and angrily so as to make a point, because so many people who normally vote felt a quiescent fury that something unpalatable, unnecessary and downright dodgy had been foisted on them – and they feared that a vote cast for a candidate was a vote in favour of the policy.

So when I asked Gethin in Ystrad Sports Centre on Thursday night, if he’d voted, he replied, “No, I always vote, but I’m not voting in this one. The bloody Tories just want to pin crime on someone else.”

Let’s say for a brief moment, though, that you believe in the policy. Let’s say you’ve overcome a fear of politicising policing. Let’s say, Mr Tory MP, that you can even explain why you’re in favour of electing PCCs but you’re opposed to electing the House of Lords. OK. Then why on earth would you decide to make it virtually impossible for candidates to get information to every household in vast police force constituencies by denying the usual freepost delivery that is available at general elections?

Why have a referendum for the introduction of a local mayor – but not for Police Commissioners? Why hold the elections in the middle of the autumn, once the clocks have gone back, rather than wait till next May? Why publish the rules governing the elections just weeks before they are held?

In other words, why make such a complete and utter hash of the blasted thing? Shambles doesn’t even begin to cover it. At one point it felt as if this really was the one-man, one-vote election as countless voters told me that they had not had a single leaflet from a candidate of any hue, which is understandable considering that many of these police force areas cover literally millions of households.

I had one lovely polling-day moment when my mother-in-law Jo and I gave a lift to the poll to an 82-year-old lady. She’d put on a bright red jacket especially and was delighted that she’d been able to “do my duty”. But even she was furious about the whole thing.

Balance in justice needs to be kept

After nearly a century of universal male suffrage (and a little less for women), I wonder whether we’ve promised too much on behalf of democracy. The most common irritant I picked up on the doorstep this week was the court decision not to deport Abu Qatada but to release him.

People don’t understand why elected politicians can’t just send him packing. Of course the mood hasn’t been helped by Theresa May’s overblown claims earlier this year, or by her decision to abolish the very system that would have restricted his activities. But leaving aside the fact that the assurances the Government secured from the Jordanian authorities were so inadequate that they crumbled under interrogation by a judge, the truth is that the rule of law is every bit as important as the democratic mandate.

So, yes, Theresa May should have made sure that the Jordanian assurances were legally watertight, and a senior, legally competent minister should have been on a flight to Amman the moment the court had made its decision. But justice lies in a balance between Parliament and the courts. If we don’t get that balance right, we’ll never be rid of him.

Long road to women bishops

Manchester got its first ever woman MP this week, Lucy Powell, and next Tuesday General Synod will vote on the consecration of women bishops. Thus far the (all male) bishops, obsessed with holding the Church together, have bent so far backwards to accommodate the tiny number of traditionalist parishes (3 per cent) that the supporters of women bishops have baulked at draft legislation that enshrines discrimination in law. Which is why the vote was adjourned in July and there’s a special session this week.

Whatever they decide, the law then has to come to Parliament, and I suspect MPs will want a prejudice-free law to allow women bishops – and nothing less.

Who’s who in Westminster Hall

A few people have been in touch following my debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday on the Prime Minister’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry to ask who was the gentleman (not their word) chairing the session. The answer: one Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering.

Normally a fiercely independent Tory, he had been wound up into a passion of expectation and was itching to tell me off for something. Bizarrely, he landed on accusing me of impugning David Cameron’s integrity by suggesting that he had paid for his own legal advice. Eh? No, I didn’t get it either.

Why Mr Hollobone? Well, he’s one of the 37 MPs who chair legislative committees and sessions in Westminster Hall – and get an extra salary of between £2,910 and £14,582 a year. Some are excellent. Albert Owen is witty and easy going. Hywel Williams is immensely laid back. Gary Streeter is precise, and Sir Roger Gale is permanently angry but rigorously fair. The spikiest of them all is Nadine Dorries, who was not, sadly, available for chairing duties this week. She might even have allowed me to accuse the PM of being an “arrogant posh boy”.

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