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.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.