It’s a big deal in America. Elected mayors run the shots in cities like New York and Chicago, and this year seems to be the year that Britain seeks to create its own Michael Bloombergs and Rahm Emanuels. Bolton and Liverpool – not quite NY and Chicago – are soon deciding whether to have elected mayors, and inspired by a London mayoral race in full swing, it’s looking like they’ll get them. Opinion polls consistently put support for elected mayors at 55-75% of the population. But what of elected police commissioners?
The two planks of the government’s ‘localism’ agenda seem are vastly different things. Elected mayors were introduced in 2000 and referendums followed in around 37 areas over the next decade – most without success. Yet referendums for elected police commissioners haven’t even been suggested. Instead they are being handed down from above as embodiments of the ‘Big Society’. John Prescott is standing nearby – Humberside – with the compensation he was given from the disgraced News of the World. Not so much big society as big money.
The police elections are expected to cost £75m, but the biggest danger is not so much the cost, rather it is the politics. Within a few years the police force could go from impartial to politicised. Think about it. What platforms will these politicians be standing on? Whatever will win votes – i.e. the most draconian policing seen since Peterloo. And on turnouts likely to be even lower than mayoral ones, the positions could be well within reach of whoever is better organised, however extreme, be it the BNP or the Pirate Party.
Elected mayors work because local government is fundamentally political, as it should be. People want a strong figure to look to, to vote out when incompetent and to stand up to central government when necessary. But electioneering doesn’t make for sound thinking for an institution with the coercive potential of the police.
As the former head of the Gloucestershire force has said, the system ‘has been designed by politicians for politicians’. Party platforms will be at the centre of the debate, as we’ve seen with the flurry of politicians like Tony Lloyd MP and of course Prescott throwing their hats into the ring. Supporters will argue the new PCCs only control the police budgets. True, to an extent. But where will most of the pressure be for spending increases? Anti-terrorism and clamping down on anti-social behaviour. Both important areas – but what of domestic abuse and fraud prevention? It will be the less highlighted issues that will get ignored when votes are at stake.
When the government are handing down 20% real terms cuts to police budgets, it’s hard to see elected police commissioners as anything other than public punch-bags. Elected mayors are an important means of democratising what needs democratising. Elected police commissioners are a means of democratising what should definitely not be political. Let us keep the two separate.
[This article is taken from my latest piece for Nouse, the University of York student newspaper]