WDP comment: Public disinterest undermines new police commissioner roles
A post-mortem must surely be under way today into the first elections for police commissioners in England and Wales after the poll was tarnished – if not discredited – by a record-low turnout.
Only around one in seven bothered to go to the ballot box, a hapless state of affairs which must heap pressure on David Cameron. He now needs to mount a strong defence of this supposedly flagship policing reform and explain how he can deny that the role lacked a popular mandate. We note that a detailed inquiry has already been ordered by the Electoral Commission, with the watchdog accusing the Government of failing to listen to its warnings about potential problems.
We expect Mr Cameron will insist that the PCCs do have a mandate despite the turnout being lower than any other in peacetime history. He has already insisted public interest will rise once the commissioners begin work.
We remain to be convinced of that. And we tend to side with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on this occasion. She argued that spending up to £100 million on the largely ignored elections had been “bad for policing, bad for democracy and bad for taxpayers”. That is a difficult argument to counter this morning.
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The commissioners – who will have powers to set force priorities and budgets, as well as to hire and fire chief constables – will struggle to claim a mandate and will be dogged by the implications of the low turnout as they try to assert their authority in the months ahead.
The Government only has itself to blame for public disinterest. Ministers failed to give the public enough information about the new role and the candidates – and the fact that the poll was held in November’s dark and cold conditions made matters worse.
These were new elections taking place at an unfamiliar time of year, which is why it was extremely important that the politicians made extra efforts to engage effectively with voters. Sadly, they did not do that.
The Government took a number of decisions about how to run these elections that the civil servants who knew better did not agree with. But what is important now is that the right lessons are learnt: the Government must talk to voters, candidates and returning officers to understand what worked and what didn’t.
But there were some positive outcomes. It was wholly refreshing to see so many independent candidates doing well, including George Ferguson, who scored a surprise victory over Labour in the Bristol mayoral election.