Remind me why we hate elected police commissioners

by Kevin Meagher

Ed Miliband was right in the Commons yesterday: spending £25 million postponing elections for the 41 proposed police and crime commissioners is a waste of money that could instead pay the wage bill (presumably before overtime) of 2000 coppers.

Cameron should be ashamed of himself. And he was doing so well: police commissioners are one of the few things he has got right. He should have stuck to his guns and held the elections next May, as planned. Unfortunately he has caved-in to Lib Dem backwoodsmen in the Lords who have pushed for the polling day to be postponed back to November 2012 to “depoliticise” the issue.

Whenever police commissioners arrive, the resource-intensive, low performance culture of British policing will at long last get a democratic makeover. They will be a shot in the arm for accountability in a key frontline public service and a finger in the eye for complacent chief constables. The public’s priorities might, for once, get a look in.

The only snag is that Labour opposes elected police commissioners. Why? Nobody knows why. But oppose them we do. On grounds, it seems, of cost and because they will politicise policing (whatever that is supposed to mean).

In the Commons yesterday the prime minister was challenged on the issue. “What did we see during the riots”? Ed asked, rhetorically. “We saw visible, effective policing”. No need for interfering commissioners, our boys in blue are beyond reproach. Hang on a minute though, is that actually what happened? Didn’t we see the police at sixes and sevens, unable to formulate a proper response to the rioters, until Cameron swept back off his hols to put some stick about?

The public, demanded Ed, wanted to see “visible and effective” policing. And so they do. But that is not what they usually get. What they get is 10% of officers available for duty on Friday and Saturday nights, according to no less an authority than her majesty’s inspector of constabulary, Sir Denis Connor, while there is a veritable cornucopia of coppers available for paper-shuffling duties on Monday mornings.

“Isn’t the truth this is the wrong priority at the wrong time for the country”. Ed solemnly concluded. But if the police cuts are going to have the devastating effects we predict, then surely having a strategic lead, with a public mandate who is in touch with the public’s priorities (like, say, an elected police and crime commissioner), would be a good thing to have in place; otherwise, how will these decisions about rationing and prioritising get made?

Our position is all the more puzzling, because we are opposing a health reform bill that will put more power in the hands of unelected, unaccountable GPs. We think – rightly – that is a bad idea; lacking transparency and leading to a postcode lottery in service provision. Yet that is precisely the principle we seem to be defending when it comes to the police.

So we find ourselves neither reformist nor localist. We are excusing the right of feudal chief constables to do, by and large, whatever they please, while leaving policing policy to be formed by the shadowy association of chief police officer – a private company beyond the reach, even, of the freedom of information act. We simply have no democratic oversight worthy of the name when it comes to holding the police accountable for their actions and, more to the point, inaction.

Ah, but we have police authorities to channel the views of the taxpaying public and to call the top brass to heel. Who can name (without recourse to a search engine) the chair of their local police authority? I haven’t the foggiest who leads mine, nor, for that matter, do I know the names of any of the political placemen and self-aggrandiers who sit on it, drawing generous expenses for rubber stamping a monthly report or some such.

We could be making a case that the police should be more closely under the ambit of local authorities. That would be a fair enough point to throw into the mix, especially with the need for greater multi-agency joint working on issues like anti-social behaviour. We could go further and promise to combine the commissioner’s role with elected big city mayors, à la Boris Johnson. Alas, however, we are making neither point. We seem to think our police service sits at the apotheosis of administrative excellence beyond the reach of either criticism or improvement.

There are good reasons – understandable reasons – why we approach the issue of police reform reluctantly. Reported crime fell by 43% on our watch. We should rightly be proud of that record; the product of huge investment in frontline policing, some judicious criminal justice reforms and a buoyant economy. We are right, too, to bewail the cuts to 16,000 frontline officers. This will roll back so much of the positive legacy we bequeathed.

But we need to be careful. We should not be seduced by our success in appropriating traditional right-wing territory and building friendly relationships with top cops. The police can be better led and more accountable, we must remind ourselves. Our current lack of critical thinking in relation to police reform risks surrendering to a powerful and unreformed producer group interest.

There are still many issues where it is right that we die in the last ditch opposing this government. But should opposing democratic reform of one of our key public services really be one of them?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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15 Responses to “Remind me why we hate elected police commissioners”

  1. Nick says:

    You didn’t care about costs when you were in power, why do you give a toss now?

  2. swatantra says:

    Not many could name the Chair of their Police Authority nor their Chief Constable, nor the Leader of their Local Council not even their local councillor. That is the state of ignorance that the public displays. They may just about remember who the PM is but show them photos of the Cabinet and 70% of the public wouldn’t have a clue.
    But they do know Ken and Boris. To be remembered in politics you have to be outrageous, and do wild things and go in for gimmicks.
    And that is what we shall be setting up. Celebrity Police Commissioners who can milk the Media. There will be no national strategy or linkage because each will want to focus on their area at the expense of the rest. Home Office co-ordination will cease to exist.

  3. Paul Evans says:

    It’s posts like this that make me *facepalm* about my own party.

    You’ve really no idea what ‘politicise policing’ is? Really?

    This weird fetish with Mayors when were were in government was bad enough – we’ll go down in history as The Party That Would’t Be Able To Write A Good Foundation Essay On Democracy’ – at least I thought that a large slice of the party had realised that this was one of our shortcomings?

  4. amarjit says:

    Tories are using costs,costs,costs on everything as an excuse to slash alot of services in the public sector,its a mission they always wanted to do. Now they have the opportunity using public debt as an excuse at the same time handed out tax relief to there rich friends in the city. The coalitions line is to blame Labour for everything and its working , with the 100% media coverage the coalition are getting labour are not even a getting look in.
    I can see the Tories going onto winning the the next election with a majority, because there coalition partners will get the blame for everything,our leadership failings, tax cuts to buy off voters and lies to scare the British public into voting labour,that will be easy as the media is right wing and supports the Tories leaving there liberal partners feeling rather humilated with a damaging election defeat making there share of the vote as low as the very small parties.

  5. Graham Phillips says:

    Firstly Cameron arrives home & tactics change but it was not therefore down to him or May. May admitted such. Secondly failure of people to know who does the job does not mean the job is not done. Raise the profile by all means but don’t change to a legion of mini-Borises. We saw Boris back from his hols vying with May for attention and falling out with her. We have seen him bending the truth for political advantage re on street policing. funding etc. The unseemly behaviour of May, Cameron & Boris post riots shows the down side. They claimed control over policing – for them a myth; with their changes, I doubt that politicos can be kept out.

  6. Gill says:

    You don’t understand “politicise policing”? Do yourself a favour: watch all 5 seasons of “the Wire” and enjoy one of the very best TV series ever. While you’re doing that you’ll receive an excellent education on the downside of elected Police Commissioners.

  7. john reid says:

    the reason we hate elected police commisioners is they won’t have the power to tell chief constabels ehat priorities they would lik ,based on what the public thinks more inportant IE, saying more police on the street to deal with anti social behaviour ,around pubs at chucking out time, as Chief constbels, know that they have to deal with things that take resources ,but don’t have the public image of money well spent ,like anti terrorism or stopping traffic crime,

  8. Kevin says:

    Sorry, I was being facetious. I know what politicians means when they warn about the ‘politicisation’ of the police. It’s just that its nonsense. Is democratic accountability of a vital public service a mortal threat? Are we really saying that the checks and balances on the police cannot be improved? Regeneration projects are ‘political’ – should we remove them from local authorities’ competence too?

    Paul – you warn about a “weird fetish with mayors”. What’s weird about direct elections? Cameron’s rejoinder to Ed the other day asking why we are so scared of elections was well pitched. Why are we so reluctant? It’s a strange state of affairs when more democracy is a ‘problem’…

    I note, however, that no-one is explicitly defending the status quo. Quite right too. 94% of people have no idea who sits on their police authority. Let that be their epitaph.

    Oh, and two quick observations on The Wire. First it’s dreadfully over-rated. And second, it’s not real you know.

  9. Gary says:

    Remind you why you oppose elected commissioners? Oh that’s easy:

    1) elected commissioners sounds American

    2) All things American are bad

    3) elected commissioners are bad

  10. Gary says:

    You are absolutely right. an elected commissioner *won’t* simply do whatever *you* think matters. They probably *will* refocus on putting a greater proportion of officers on the street and tackle anti-social behaviour, particularly around closing time. And the public will LOVE IT. And if you don’t agree, you can participate in a democratic process to get another commissioner in place with another agenda.

  11. AmberStar says:

    Remind me why we hate elected police commissioners
    Because people can’t be @rsed with more elections. We’ve got all the democracy we can be bothered with – or haven’t you seen the statistics about the fall in voting?

  12. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath says:


    I totally disagree. We have been fighting in the Lords to prevent this disastrous policy of politicising our police force. We see in London already the consequences. 3 Police Commissioners in one term of office of the Mayor already. This will be reapeted up and down the country as el;ecetd Police Commisioers seek to show they are active. Will lead to huge instability, Police Chiefs will lose their independence, and the public will be the losers.

    Phil Hunt, Deputy Leder, Oppositon, House of Lords

  13. john p Reid says:

    Gary, elected police commisisoners won’t have the power to do that, Cheif consables will just refuse to do that if they police chief feels anti terror crime is more inprotatnt than anti social behaviour,and the elected commisioner can’t sack the Police chief if the police chief refuses,they don’t have the power to dismiss them, that’s the whole point.

  14. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Kevin – directly electing a mayor isn’t necessarily weird, but given that it’s been a dreadful failure in many areas where it’s been tried (Stoke, Doncaster, Torbay), has led to results that do not accurately reflect the views of the wider population because of low turnout and use of the ridiculous SV system (Doncaster, Hartlepool) and has produced real and meaningful improvements more or less nowhere, it might be that direct elections are not an angle to pursue.

    But you’re right that more democratic oversight of policing wouldn’t hurt. So why not increase the elected component of police authorities? We’ve got plenty of local councillors who could easily be assigned to such roles and they’re easier to get hold of than a commissioner covering a county-wide area would necessarily be.

    As a side issue, the 10% statistic you quote is not terribly meaningful. Note that only around a third of officers will be on shift at any one time. Then assume around 5% of these are sick and another 10% on holiday. Let’s say another 15% are engaged in paperwork and a further 10% are driving vans or in other similar support roles. That puts you at 20% of the total force on duty and available for the streets. So it’s half that. Which is a figure that should increase, but is a lot less impressive once you work through all that.

  15. Kevin says:

    AmberStar – so shall we do away with elections altogether then?!?!

    John – Yes, commissioners will be able to sack chief constables. But that’s not the point – this is about driving performance through proper accountability; not (necessarily) about showing who has the whip hand.

    Phil – Surely an Alice Through the Looking Glass experience to have an unelected peer opposing democratic oversight of a key public service?!

    Edward – fair points as usual – but for every case where an elected mayor has proven to be less than satisfactory I can show you a dozen conventional council leaders who are worse.

    Disagree with you about putting a sticking plaster on existing police authorities. And have to take issue with your analytical rebuttal about there being just 10% of officers being available for what is surely a crime/ anti social behaviour highlight of the week.

    The point, according to the HM Inspector of Constabulary, is that more officers are available on a Monday morning. By any reckoning that is a ludicrous state of affairs. BTW – You are too generous. Tolerating 15% absenteeism would get most managers sacked in industry!

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