Labour has missed a chance to be positive about police commissioners

by Kevin Meagher

Well, here we are, the day when, if some pollsters are to be believed, fewer than one in ten of us in England and Wales will bother to trudge to the polling station and cast a vote for our first-ever police and crime commissioners.

It is fair to say that this is the most unloved choice put before the electorate since Herod offered Jerusalem voters a choice of slaughtering the first or second born.

It’s not just the prophets of doom among our number-crunching mystics who are predicting disaster. The hostile chatter across the media and British politics over the past year will make a low turnout today a self-fulfilling prophecy. I gave up going through the Labour website press release section looking for something – anything – positive that the frontbench has said about commissioners.

Yet the concept of elected police commissioners deserves a chance. A cursory glance through the independent report into the Hillsborough disaster shows why stronger oversight of our police service is so badly needed. South Yorkshire Police’s abuse of power, including running background and fingerprint checks on the dead as senior officers concocted their alibi and slur the victims, is what happens when the police have no-one able to frustrate their knavish tricks.

Chief constables enjoy almost feudal powers. Police authorities, which are supposed to act as a check and balance, are about as effective as the audit committee at Lehman Brothers. The conspiracy that resulted in the Hillsborough cover-up would not happen with a strong commissioner, ever mindful of public opinion, and ultimately personally responsible, refusing to be bowed by such evil intent.

Browsing the party’s website this morning I can find no manifesto either, to help guide candidates in approaching the task of becoming a police and crime commissioner. As a campaign tactic, haranguing the government for frontline police cuts is fair enough, but Labour commissioners will be in charge of those decisions tomorrow morning. Like Robert Redford at the end of The Candidate they will be left to ask “what now?”

It would have been better to have begun a debate about reconfiguring policing so that constables continue to hold frontline responsibility but give-up functions that can ably be carried out by civilian staff.

Unfortunately the shadowy Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) effectively runs policing policy in this country, despite being a private company and not subject to freedom of information considerations.

Of course some people not unreasonably say that the split between operational matters (which are the preserve of the chief constable) and policy and budgetary issues (which the commissioner will be in charge of) means the role lacks bite. What’s the point of commissioners when, in reality, policing decisions will carry on being run by the boys in blue?

But there is nothing – absolutely nothing – stopping commissioners being bold and deciding it is policy in their force area to reject kettling tactics, or to instigate policy changes that forbid the use of water cannons or baton rounds (the euphemism for plastic bullets) on their patch. Currently, ACPO decides all this for us.

Alas, no-one has been interested in making these points. Yet we have some fantastic candidates standing today and those MPs like Alun Michael and Tony Lloyd who quit Westminster to run for these positions see the massive potential to put Labour values to work in policing.

The risk, however, is that some others don’t get it. We must not allow Labour commissioners to become coppers’ lackeys, sat in force HQ being patronised and outplayed by wily top officers. Regrettably, this may come to pass because so little critical thinking has been done beforehand.

All we can hope is that those elected today see this as a much needed and long overdue reform to put in place a new, dynamic system of accountability and leadership to address deep-rooted flaws in British policing, which issues like Hillsborough have powerfully exposed.

So I will head off to the polling station with a spring in my step and think of the 96 Liverpool fans disgustingly slandered by corrupt police officers and vote enthusiastically for the best way we have of ensuring it could never happen again.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut


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9 Responses to “Labour has missed a chance to be positive about police commissioners”

  1. john reid says:

    the reason ACPO is a private company is the police bosses aren’t allwed a union an dhave to submit themselves to the trade board as a private company,
    they don’t choose policy some recommend it same as IPCC DPS the federation, Liberty News of the wolrd over Sarah’s law, or trade unions, they know what they’re talking about so why shouldn’t they submit polciy ideas,

    regarding police oauthorities and the fact that Chief constable curently have power, the authorities are independent and, The Chief constable has been put their through hard work

  2. Kevin says:

    John – ACPO is not a trade union for top cops. Check out their ‘statement of purpose':

    ‘ACPO leads and coordinates the direction and development of the police service in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In times of national need ACPO, on behalf of all chief officers, coordinates the strategic policing response.’

    They shape policy outside of any democratic framework.

  3. swatantra says:

    ‘…. Yet we have some fantastic candidates standing today and those MPs like Alun Michael and Tony Lloyd who quit Westminster to run for these positions see the massive potential to put Labour values to work in policing…. ‘

    On the other hand we might end up with Prezza in Hull.

    1 The fact is some were asked to stand by the heirachy because no one of prominence or sense would come forward.
    2 Will be interesting to see if any Independents get elected on such a dismal turnout, for Independents read psuedo-facists who know nothing at all about policing.
    3 The Police Commissioner will be doing no more than the Police Authorities were already doing n the job of scrutiny and holding the chief Constable to account, and some pretty well, from my experience.
    There were even plans to have elected Police Authorities to make them even more representative.

    This is the worst policy idea ever to have been put to the electorate without adequate preparation since Regional Govts which the Elecorates in their ignorance rejected, and the worthy proposal for Elected Mayors in our big Cities.

  4. Postageincluded says:

    The majority of police commissioners will be safe seats for Labour or Tory. I really can’t see how that increases accountability.

  5. john reid says:

    kevin, i never said they were a trade union and they don’t shape policies they can recomend them , same as liberty, a non democratic think tank

  6. swatantra says:

    I must say I resisted the temptation to vote in these PCC elections, and followed Lord Blairs excellent advice, in an attempt to blow a large raspberry at this Policy Exchange scheme. And the LP Leadership should have done the same.

  7. Mike Homfray says:

    Labour must follow public opinion on this one. PCC’s should be abolished

  8. john p Reid says:

    for once I agree mike, were local police authorities meetings televised on regional TV stations, the way the MPA would be televised after London Mayor’s question time on BBC parliament, I think Police authorities were good, but maybe the public were either not interested enough in them to not know who were on them, or not publicised enough for the public to take an interest, I understand the view that the public didn’t know who were on them If the meetings had been televised (possibly online) then maybe the argument that we needed PCCs to let the public have a vocal point to contact too, would have been less of an excuse to introduce tehm

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    I sat on a police authority for four years. It was far from perfect – one of the big problems was having to rely on the police for information whilst also trying to hold them to account.
    However, there were two clear strengths. First, no party could have an overall majority and that did mean that issues needed to win the support of independent members – thought the party reps weren’t entirely averse to trying to keep power for themselves sometimes voting for a member of another party over an independent. Second, that the independent members were often people like me who had been involved in policing in one way and another as community activists and while some of us had party affiliations we were not prepared to follow any party line – well, I wasn’t, anyway!

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