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