by David Talbot
The police must no longer be immune to radical reform. A mighty vested interest, which has historically seen off just about all attempts to reform it, they have grown into a monolithic empire that successive governments dare not touch. It has been a failure of political will to pursue reform; Blair balked from many of the more controversial reforms his bellicose former home secretaries, in the shape of Messrs Blunkett and Clarke, conjured up. For Labour’s leaders, being pro-police was a vital ingredient of being New Labour. But the myopic faith our political leaders, and the public, once had in the police has sadly waned in the light of recent events – and it is why Labour should welcome the newly-minted police and crime commissioners
The police have long claimed the irrelevance of their political masters when it comes to policing. They have operated an arrogant closed doors policy that has intimidated, and dissuaded, many from engaging in their work. These reactions demonstrate that our police are systemically intolerant of debate and virulently closed to new ideas.
The police need democratic oversight. They are one of the most closed, complex and costly of public services. It is can only be right that the police are brought closer to the very people they are sworn to protect. The apparent immunity of the police service to wider accountability has been a distressing aspect of the service ever since the committees of councillors, members of the public and magistrates took over in the 1960s from local watch committees, which had existed since the 1830s.
The coalition’s attempt to meet this challenge was the idea of elected police commissioners. The ambition is commendable but, clearly, the execution has been lamentable. Pitifully low turnout is rightly seen as bad for democracy and will undoubtedly hamper the authority the new commissioners can initially wield with such a discredited mandate. But, as much as it sticks in the throat to admit, Grant Shapps made a modest point when he highlighted 5 million more people had just voted for their commissioner than in the previous, highly anonymous, police authority boards.
Any democracy is better than none. And that is what it should have made it so easier for Labour to say they welcome accountability for the police. But the party’s response has been a depressing exercise in tick-box opposition. Yvette Cooper, Labour’s dalek-like shadow home secretary, has not wasted a single moment to denounce the reform and has suggested, somewhat stupidly, that the elections could be the “first step on the road to corruption”.
Because Labour tends to be nervous of looking anti-police, it usually takes Conservative ministers to reform the forces of law and order. But Cameron took the bizarre decision, once the original timetable slipped, of holding one off elections in November. You don’t need to be a psephologist to have predicted an abysmal turnout on a mid November day, particularly when such little information on the candidates – or indeed their proposed roles – had been made readily available.
As Philip Colllins notes, the prime minister, as with city mayors, forgot to campaign and our media were seemingly not all that bothered as the elections fell outside zone six. But the legitimacy of the position will not rest on turnout, but on commissioners’ ability to bring passionate reform to a body of inbuilt conservatism.
It is a big thing for governments to take on the police, which is why ministers have so rarely done it. Labour’s shadow ministers, particularly Yvette Cooper, took the option to continue fruitless opposition – that, incidentally, directly undermined the work of Labour candidates and activists fighting these elections – for posturing that won a few cheap headlines. But despite eye-watering budget largesse, and unyielding political support, the performance of our police has all too often fallen short. Reform is a must.
If this reform really can truly democratise without threatening operational independence, it deserves Labour’s full support.
David Talbot is a political consultant