Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners

The home office yesterday unveiled its blueprint for reforming the police which promises the biggest organisational shake-up for 50 years; the frustration about this announcement is that it should have been a Labour home secretary making it.

The home office yesterday unveiled its blueprint for reforming the police which promises the biggest organisational shake-up for 50 years. The proposals are contained in Policing in the 21st century: reconnecting police and the people and, among other things, will see the creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners in each police force area from 2012.

In a completely new constitutional departure, commissioners will be responsible for setting a force’s priorities and budget and have powers to recruit and dismiss chief constables. Police authorities, which date back to 1964, will be scrapped entirely. Meanwhile a new Police and Crime Panel will oversee the commissioner’s budget, hold public meetings and produce an annual report.

The frustration about this announcement is that it should have been a Labour home secretary making it. Although crime levels fell a staggering 43 per cent under the last Labour government, the police went virtually unreformed and the otherwise estimable shadow home secretary, Alan Johnson, is completely off the pace in his opposition to this issue.

In responding to home secretary Teresa May, Mr Johnson said elected police commissioners were an “unnecessary, unwanted and expensive diversion”, claiming that the idea amounted to the politicisation of policing.

But of course one person’s ‘politicisation’ is another’s ‘public accountability’. For a service which was recently exposed for having just one in every ten police officers available to tackle crime at any one time – despite year-on-year budget increases over the past four decades – a bit more scrutiny is probably long overdue.

And when more democracy is seen to be a problem, then it’s a funny old world. Indeed, there seems to be a resistance from some progressives about elected police commissioners because they fear it ushers in the “frightening” prospect of BNP bovver boys getting elected.

Let’s be clear: you cannot run a democracy on the basis that the wrong person might get elected. You fight to make sure the right one does. No-one seriously argues that because housing and children’s services are sensitive matters we should scrap elections to councils in case the BNP takes control of them too.

Neither is it the case, as the Local Government Association inexplicably argues, that elected commissioners will “weaken the ability” of the police and local authorities to cut crime. They will put a dent in the expenses of their members who currently sit on police authorities, but that is hardly the same thing.

The role of elected Police and Crime Commissioners is similar to that of a council leader to their chief executive. They are a democratic lead ensuring the public’s voice is heard throughout the organisation; while operational independence to run the force remains in the hands of the chief constable.

But the value of elected commissioners is that the very act of voting someone into office will stimulate greater debate about key local crime and disorder issues. The police will become more responsive simply because the buck will now stop somewhere to ensure the public’s priorities are delivered. The police will stop being a top-down, take-it-or-leave-it-service and get with the programme about how modern public services are run.

The simple truth is that nothing ever changes in large organisations unless the job of someone at the very top is on the line. But chief constables are virtually regal figures. They are untouchable. The system can only benefit from someone looking over their shoulder. And the bottom line is that the police force is the ultimate failing public service – unresponsive, unreformed and very expensive – and long overdue for a sharp kick in the pants. For so many years they have been immune from change because of lax corporate governance and their own low cunning in keeping politicians’ tanks off their lawns. These reforms will help sweep away that rotten culture.

In fact, the faster Labour reverses out of the intellectual cu-de-sac it now finds itself in on police reform, the better. It feels a bit like the Conservatives’ reaction to the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly 12 years ago. Not so much implacable opposition, more a case of foot-dragging begrudgery. It will make it harder to elect progressive figures to these crucial roles if Labour is still pulling its face about whether they should even exist.

Good riddance to flaccid police authorities. As the consultation document puts it, they are “too invisible”. They are window-dressing; pseudo-democratic cover for feudal chief constables. Their democratic value is negligible. There is no direct connection to the public – only 8 per cent of wards elect councillors who sit on police authorities. And a third of their members must be magistrates – people who, with the greatest of respect, are part and parcel of the same insular, arcane system as the police. Rather than tribunes of the people they are vassals of the constabulary.

The fact that greater democratisation of the police service was a clear manifesto commitment of both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, means that this reform is going to happen, despite the police being adept at shutting the window on the winds of change in the past.

The response of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is markedly more diplomatic from the previous silly sabre-rattling of their president, Sir Hugh Orde, who predicted that chief constables would resign in protest if this reform went through. ACPO now says it needs to “examine in detail the government’s proposals for maintaining operational independence against the practical reality of directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners”.

Meanwhile, the usually excitable Police Federation which represents rank and file officers, is even more sanguine, saying:

“The Federation is not against the proposal for elected commissioners but we would urge detailed consideration and a firm business case.”

Tellingly, the Association of Police Authorities has not been able to steel itself to comment yet.

In our post-ideological political times ideas become increasingly fluid. There are still many issues to oppose this government over. But elected Police and Crime Commissioners should not one of them.

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39 Responses to “Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners”

  1. David Benge

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners:

  2. ThisIsNotAGateway

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners:

  3. Will Straw

    I have to say that I am entirely unconvinced by this argument. We elect local politicians to make decisions about local priorities and I have no problem with the police falling under greater local control (as the Met does with the London Mayor, for example).

    But electing police commissioners in elections that are likely to have low turnouts is a hostage to fortune which, while it may not let the BNP in, will certainly produce some perverse results. Either too little power is devolved to these commissioners to make it meaningful or there is a serious risk that power will be given to elected commissioners with mediocre mandates.

    As Rick Muir put it in a separate piece for LFF before the election:

    “[Police Commissioners] would overly-politicise policing – for instance introducing pressures to provide more police in wealthier areas where more people vote than in deprived areas where there is more crime.”

  4. Blair Gibbs

    Left Foot Fwd frustration on police commissioners announcement – “should have been a Labour home secretary making it.”

  5. Will Straw

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners: < I disagree but good to debate

  6. oldpolitics

    How is “…our main concern continues to be the introduction of untested and un-costed changes to police accountability at a time when we need to be focused on driving down the costs of policing.” ‘not commenting’?

  7. Greg Lovell

    The concern is not so much about making the police more accountable, but the potential for political interference in what should be an apolitical organisation. Say a Conservative commissioner is elected in an area, his priority will be to keep Conservative voters happy so he can be re-elected. He may push the police to focus on issues and areas which affect these voters rather than deal with trouble spots in areas which are unlikely to support him.

    Priorities for policing should not be driven by the desire of an individual or party to secure enough support (what voting system will be used?) at an election. Is it not a legitimate concern to fear that far from leading to a more accountable and transparent police force, elected commissioners end up serving the special interests of a group of voters at the expense of others?

    A much more democratic approach would be to make the police more accountable to the existing local democratic institutions – councils at all levels – and give the councils more power over police activity and personnel. I don’t see how having one commissioner parachuted in at the top helps connect the police to local people. Why and how would this single person be able to deliver on the concerns of all people, especially when their job depends on pleasing just enough?

  8. Douglas Carswell

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives sld support Elected Police Chiefs <<We do. We're called direct democracy Conservatives

  9. Kevin Boatang

    The local PCT and the policing should be under the control of locally elected politicians. Taht way everything is linked up and common policy grounds are achieved, not to mention huge savings.

    In terms of the elected chiefs, this is not a bad move. However, I would prefer an elected oversight board with half being local councillors. This would leave the day to day running of a politically independent (we can but hope) police officer running the borough, but with democratic accountability above him or her.

    By just having an elected heady boy, you end up with one person in charge who may well not know what the hell he is talking about.

    But I do love the irony of the Left being scared of who might be elected. Can’t trust those peskey citizens eh!

  10. Anon E Mouse

    Will – Surprisingly for me I find myself in agreement with this article.

    Johnson on Sunday’s Adam Boulton said that people want the DNA database and speed cameras / CCTV – he is so stuck in the Westminster village and not in the real world it begs belief. If the left is to act as a decent opposition to the governing party(ies) then they have to be credible and relevant and advocating central state control is simply not that. Labour got the same percentage last election as Michael Foot.

    We elect politicians to act as our representatives in the House of Commons not to make decisions about local priorities – that is the old politics where the government dictates to the people from some distant place.

    By electing police commissioners locally makes them accountable locally and they will have to act on behalf of their electors concerns. If that were the case now then that idiot in North Wales – can’t remember his name – the speed camera copper would be catching burglars and real criminals instead of punishing the motorist.

    This brings power to the people and dismantles one more piece of Labour’s stupid control freak policies such as ID cards, 90 days detention etc

    The sad thing is that Labour should have been the ones to do this all along and not leave it in the hands of the coalition. If the BNP do get elected so be it – that’s democracy.

    Finally as shocked as I was with Frank Field looking into poverty for the government, Labour having doubled Inheritance Tax, the Coalition getting rid of Runway 3 at Heathrow and the then taxing the bankers nothing shocked me as much as Cameron’s statements on Gaza. Today I am gobsmacked…

    Everything is backwards or I’m living on a different planet but in any event Will you are missing the “New Politics” wave here fella – everything has changed and (with the greatest respect) you need to move on…

  11. Tim Mullen

    What absolute rubbish, and another example of why so-called “progressives” have no place in the Labour Party.

    May I draw Mr Meagher’s attention to the largest (and to my knowledge only) country to elect police commissioners/chiefs/sherrifs, call them what you will, the United States: here you have Sherrif Joe Arpaio of Maracopa County, Arizona, who seems to find it aceptable to introduce racial profiling (currently the subject of legal action by the ACLU) and is under investigation by the Department of Justice and FBI for bogus arrest and prosecution in order to inflate his “success” rate. On the other side of the fence we have former Sherrif Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, who after three terms in the US House of Representatives is now the Democratic Party candidate for US Senate in November.

    There is no public demand for the election of Chief Officers of Police, there is no logical reason for them to be elected, other than the deluded ramblings of people like Mr Meagher, who having tried to destroy local government through the failed policy of directly elected Mayors, moved on to destroying the comprehensive education system through the introduction of Academy Schools outside the control of Local Education Authorities, and now want to destroy the independence of the police forces by politicisation. These people are totally out of touch with the real world, and to borrow a phrase from our American cousins should get off their butts and smell the coffee.

    We do not want them, we have no purpose for them, and I trust that all five candidates for the Labour leadership will continue Alan Johnson’s policies and will repudiate this ridiculous and dangerous proposal.

    Mr Meagher, there are still some vacancies on the Conservative benches, perhaps you would like to join them, as you obviously have no sympathy for, or understand of, the traditions, policies and values of the Labour movement.

  12. George

    America has elected judges, and look what happened. The electorate never ceases to demand tougher and tougher action on criminals, so elected law makers create tougher and tougher laws in an effort to appear tougher than the last guy, while elected judges give longer and longer sentences to also appear tough. Is this the road we want to go down? We already have a plethora of wide ranging, widely defined catch-all criminal offences on the statute book, thanks mainly to Labour being in power over the past 13 years. Police chiefs, in a bid to secure their next election will clamp down on as many people as they can to appear competent, to the detriment of all of us. Nobody should support this.

  13. Shamik Das

    Anon, if you’d ever been out canvassing you’d realise Johnson was 100% correct – it’s the Westminster Village liberals who are out of step with the public on cctv & the dna database. The public, especially those who live in high crime areas want MORE not less cctv, not that Cleggy and Cameron give a damn what they think.

  14. Tom Miller

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners:

  15. Tom Miller

    I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but even on the bits where I agree with the Tories, LFF agrees with me.

    There is only one thing you have ever been wrong about, and that’s open primaries.

  16. Dimitri Tskitishvili

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners

  17. Anon E Mouse

    Tim Mullen – Why does local accountability frighten you so much? Doesn’t it worry you that the President of the European Union was not voted for by a single elector in the EU?

    Shamik Das – I’m not in the Westminster Village as you call it but I see nothing wrong with being liberal in outlook – it’s better than being a control freak (except for the smoking ban which I hate).

    Anyway I work for a living and if you actually believe people in this country want more state control and CCTV then I really think you need to get out more Shamik…

  18. Richard Pope

    Many parts of the country already have very effective police oversight bodies. I worry that electing commissioners directly may mean that such bodies are bypassed in favour of blatant popularism. e.g. See page 5 of this document (PDF): for an example of community monitoring of the police in action.

  19. Mr. Sensible

    Wow, this is already turning out to be a lively debate. And i haven’t entered it yet.

    My position on this remains unchanged since we debated it on this blog last month. It was a lively debate then, and judging by what we’ve had so far this debate looks like going the same way.

    Kevin I completely disagree with you. Lets remember that police authorities are made up at least partly of councillors who have already been elected in their wards, and as I understand it are then appointed by the council to serve on the authority. Here in Nottinghamshire, I believe our police authority consists of 7 members from Nottinghamshire County Council, 2 from Nottingham City Council and 8 independent members. That is over half of the authority made up of locally elected councillors.

    And Kevin, you mention the LGA, but they have put the cost of administering these elections at £50 million, or 700 police officers. At a time when police forces are preparing to make cuts, is this really a good use of public money?

    Also, 1 thing that has not been tuched on yet is the impact on cross-boarder policing. In recent weeks, we have had 2 high-profile examples of that; the cases of Derric Bird and Raoul Mote. Kevin, what do you think will happen if you have 2 police commissioners with different directions?

    In short, I’m afraid this is not necesary as we already have locally elected councillors sitting on these authorities, and it is not a good use of public money at a time when we’re told it is tight.

  20. Mr. Sensible

    BTW, can somebody post a link to the previous thread on this subject at the end of june?

  21. Chattertrap

    Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners #barefootbandit

  22. Shamik Das

    Mr S – this is Kevin’s article from June – Theresa May is right to take on ACPO and reform the police – this is my piece on the subject in May – New home sec ignores police & outlines plans for “elected individuals” – and this is Rick Muir’s article during the election campaign arguing against elected police commissioners – In the absence of money, reform is essential

    It is indeed a lively debate! Good point about overlapping jurisdictions, and the relationship between elected commissioners with different outlooks.

  23. Mr. Sensible

    Cheers for the links, Shamik.

  24. Mr. Sensible

    BTW, as we mention accountability, would that not have been helped by maintaining things like the Policing Pledge?

  25. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.S – To answer your last point first I think you’ll find that Home Secretary is proposing an FBI type organisation so your fear that different police forces couldn’t work together is without merit. Stop worrying and relax Mr.S…

    Mind you living in Nottingham, with the third highest crime rate in the UK, (All rates are falling nationally before you start that old chestnut…) I’m surprised that you aren’t willing to try anything else to see if it works.

    Because what’s going on in Nottingham now clearly isn’t working and at least you’ll be able to sack the useless Police Commissioner in the future. A bit like the way the public sacked that last useless Prime Minister (except he was never elected in the first place)…

    Unless (as I suspect) you actually live somewhere like Rushcliffe and aren’t really affected by the crime…

  26. Mr. Sensible

    Mr Mouse, that ‘unelected prime minister’ doesn’t really carry much weight, in that Cameron wasn’t exactly elected; the only reason they’ve got in is because Clegg ripped up his manifesto.

    I would expect that the proportion of members of authorities is similar elsewhere in the country.

  27. Don Quixote

    I think the reasons why the politicisation of the police force is undesirable (including conflicts of interest and the promotion of short-termism in strategies to counter crimes)have already been elicited, and would only that I also take issue with your assertion that “nothing ever changes in large organisations unless the job of someone at the very top is on the line”.

    I should like to know

    a) why exactly you think that the only way of inducing change is accountability through elections. Surely there are other metrics by which police chiefs could be accountable (a police watchdog with the power to expel CCs, if they are deemed to be working ineffectively, perhaps) rather than one which raises the significant question of who exactly CCs are accountable to (their voters or their locals?).

    b) Presuming it IS the only way to bring about change, what reasons do you have for supposing that this change will be positive? You have written little to address concerns about the politicisation of what many people feel ought to be a politically neutral body (no, calling it accountability does not cut it) and nor have you spelled out how conflicts of interest could be addressed , whether this is something that could be exploited by organised criminals, whether it will lead to the promotion of short-term goals over long-term strategies etc. etc.

    Are there precedents of this being an effective strategy to combat crime?

  28. David Benge

    @andwhatthen you don't agree it is a progressive move as per article on leftfootfoward

  29. Kevin Meagher

    Dear All – thanks for the above comments. In the most part a useful exchange; albeit not necessarily a meeting of minds! Apologies for tardy response time – bit like if you try and call a non-emergency police number…

    Most respondents don’t seem to have a problem with greater accountability for the fuzz; so I guess the challenge is over to you to come up with a model you do like then. What is clear is that the model we’ve had for the past 45 years – police authorities – is bankrupt. Apart from the Mayor of London who chairs the Met PA, can anyone, in all honesty, name another police authority chairman in the land? Let that deafening silence be their epitaph. We need a stronger, more democratic alternative. I think elected commissioners can perhaps offer that. But we at least need to recognise policing is a public service like any other and the public are entitled to have their say in how they are shaped.

    My frustration is borne of the fact that Labour should be driving this agenda. And we simply aren’t. Policing is the last bastion of the top-down, take-it-or-leave-it, we-know-best approach to public services. Our position is neither reformist nor localist. It is a carte blanche defence of a moth-eaten status quo.

    It is also a bit depressing that liberal fainthearts assume there is no prospect of anyone to the left of Attila the Hun standing a snowball’s chance in hell of ever becoming a commissioner. This is really timid stuff; be bold! At a time when the right is making all the running with civil rights, penal policy and now police accountability we need to get back in the game.

    Greg – you say “priorities for policing should not be driven by the desire of an individual or party”. So who should set these priorities? Chief constables? ACPO? The words ’Dracula’ and ‘bloodbank’ spring to mind. Greater democracy is always the answer for me, whether it is police commissioners, an elected second chamber, elected head of state, or elected big-city mayors.

    Tim – you opt for the entirely bogus US comparison with “Sherrif Joe” from Arizona and his less than enlightened approach to penal policy. This is an unworthy student union habit: pick an extreme example and try and normalise it as the terms of reference for a debate. Oh, and when you have done as much as I have for the Labour party sonny, then you can lecture me.

    Shamik – you are quite right to make the point that out in the real world – some – people support CCTV, the DNA database, speed cameras and the like. But how much of that is borne of utter frustration with the police to get out in communities and conduct pavement policing instead? Not only do these alternatives diminish our civil liberties, but we end up paying twice for tackling crime; picking up not only the wage bill of exponentially more police officers – who never seem to meet the public’s expectation – but also a plethora of invasive and expensive technologies, the utility of which are open to question.

    Hey ho. I’m glad this has at least stimulated a good old fashioned debate!

  30. Tom Sheppard

    Agree with this – elected police commissioners seem like a good idea to me –

  31. Simon

    I’d love to see a progressive Police Commissioner elected on a “Tolerant of drugs” slate. What would the government do then?

    Of course, how much actual leeway any commissioner will have is likely to be much smaller. Will the policy therefore be cuts in the guise of local democratisation? It would be consistent, if nothing else.

  32. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – I’m not going over the election results again – Cameron got the most seats and could have run a minority government – he won the election.

    PS. I knew you must have been from Rushcliffe or somewhere like it and not on the coal face in Nottingham – walk a mile in the shoes of someone living in Bulwell and you may start to understand the working classes in this country…

  33. Mr. Sensible

    Mr Mouse I am not going in to that.

    But I would be rather interested to see how you think crime will fall if we adopted this rather than keeping 700 police officers (Local Government Association).

  34. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – I knew you wouldn’t. I have a nose for the privileged in this country lecturing to the rest of us from their ivory towers – I can smell hypocrisy a mile off.

    The simple fact is (and I’m LOVING this government for ditching ASBO’s) by making the “boss” accountable means if he wants to keep his job he’ll act on the local peoples behalf and anyone on this blog who claims this isn’t progressive is deluded.

    Labour lost – get over it and if the party wants to be considered for government in the future it needs to stop opposing for opposing’s sake. I remember a time when Labour used to be considered liberal….

  35. Mr. Sensible

    Mr mouse, as I have said before there are some things the coalition is doing that I welcome. I welcome getting rid of cheap drink promotions.

    I am not just opposing for opposition’s sake. The simple fact is that this will have an adverce effect on policing in 2 ways.

    First, £50 million will be diverted to this that could, and should, be spent on frontline policing, and also the individuals concerned will be after reelection and be after votes.

    Incidentally, the coalition was meant to be allowing for elected Primary Care Trusts. Now look…

  36. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – Out of interest which of the coalition initiatives DO you approve of?

    £50 millions is nothing. If Labour had remained in power then the interest alone on the UK debt would have been £70 billions – it’s a drop in the ocean…

  37. Mr. Sensible

    “Mr.Sensible – Out of interest which of the coalition initiatives DO you approve of?”

    I’ve already said, I support stopping alcohol being sold below cost price, I support linking pentions to earnings, and I support ditching the Third Runway.

    And the point is, if we can afford £50 million for that, we can afford to keep our police on the streets. the lGA said that that was the equivalent to 700 police officers.

    And all this about the deficit won’t do the economy any good, and is out of step with the OBR’s own figures.

  38. Elected Mayors: Let the referendum campaigns begin | Left Foot Forward

    […] Progressives should be supporting Elected Police Commissioners – Kevin Meagher, July 27th […]

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