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Why low turnout in tomorrow's police commissioner elections won't matter

By Paul Goodman
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IPSOS Mori predicts that the turnout in tomorrow's Police and Crime Commissioner elections will be a mere 14%.  There would be no shortage of reasons for such a dismal total.  Many people believe that the police operate in a politics-free vacuum. ( If you doubt it, ask yourself how many people you know understand how the police are accountable, what your local police authority does - or can name any of its members.)  It follows that they don't grasp what the new police commissioners will do either, and are vulnerable to Lord Blair's shrewdly-pitched claim that they will somehow "politicise policing".

There are other factors.  The timing is askew: voters should have gone to the polls on the same day as last spring's local elections, and the Liberal Democrat-forced delay might almost have been calculated to sabotage the project.  There have been no taxpayer-funded leaflets introducing the candidates - and nor should there have been, but the lack of them will leave turnout lower than it would otherwise have been.  The elections have also been a victim of Team Cameron's decline of interest in localism since opposition.

It is true that the Prime Minister has campaigned in these elections, and that he can't show an interest in everything at once.  None the less, Downing Street has turned its back on revolutionary change, Steve Hilton-style, since the feverish passage of the Health Bill, and gone for a more limited, George Osborne-flavoured programme of deficit reduction, plus the flagship education and welfare reforms.  But while localism hasn't been stopped in its tracks - consider Eric Pickles's transparency drive, for example - its momentum has halted since Mr Hilton left for America.

Elected Mayors have bitten the dust.  Some Ministers claim that Mr Cameron didn't really get behind the idea, and point out that his (very fine) conference speech didn't mention police commissioners.  Another depressor of turnout tomorrow will be the lack of a Tim Collins factor.  In other words, there are some fine candidates, but very few have been touched by stardust.  In particular, the plethora of independents that some anticipated hasn't materialised.  But there is something even bigger at work - something in the very atmosphere of the country.

Britain is a centralised country when compared to many of its European neighbours, and for many people time outside work is a squeezed commodity.  This goes a long way to explain why so many of the seeds of localism so enthusiastically sown in Douglas Carswell's and Daniel Hannan's The Plan - with its radical shift from national to local taxation - have fallen on stony ground.  London has got bigger as provincial Britain has got smaller (in clout, anyway), Whitehall's scope has grown while that of local government has shrunk, and the Treasury's power has waxed while that of other departments has waned, particular under Gordon Brown.

Litter and hooliganism?  The police should simply "sort it".  Graffiti?  Ditto.  Anti-social behaviour and noise late at night?  The same.  The idea that more local control of policing rather than more than edicts and laws from Westminster would better enable the police to "sort it" becomes hard to grasp in such a centralised settlement.  I am not saying that the police commissioner plan is perfect.  Far from it: many of the police authority areas for which commissioners will be elected are simply too big - Thames Valley, for example.

Furthermore, some of new commissioners will make a mess of it.  Some may resign, claiming that the role wasn't what they expected.  Others will get in trouble over their costs and expenses.  Still others will become the subject of producer capture, as they gang up with the local Chief Constable to try to screw more money out of the Home Office.  Indeed, it can be argued that Chief Constable and Commissioner (one keen to be promoted, the other to be re-elected) will band together to claim that the local force is doing a first-rate job, even if it isn't, and that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

But some will, against expectation and apparently all the odds, travel diligently up and down their police authority areas listening to voter concerns.  At the same time, they will get to know how their local police force ticks and how the local media works.  They will have an incentive, as Chief Constables do not, to draw up their police and crime plans with voters in mind - to listen to local communities who demand, say, more police on the beat, but also to explain why everywhere can't have everything at once.

They will have the power to propose sacking Chief Constables - no wonder Lord Blair can't stand the idea of Police Commissioners - but will have to take the new police and crime panels with them in order to do so.  Slowly and imperfectly, the very best will begin to get a reputation outside their areas: they will become to policing what Wandsworth Council, say, is to local government - a bit of an exemplar.  Sure, Wandsworth (or Windsor and Maidenhead, or Westminster, or Hammersmith and Fulham) haven't raised the standard of every Labour or Liberal Democrat or, I'm afraid, Conservative Council in the country.

But they are there.  And their residents are better off than they would be if parking permits or public housing or libraries or food complaints or waste collection or local childminding or sheltered housing was run directly from Whitehall.  So it doesn't matter if tommorow's turnout is derisory.  The real test will be when the next set of police commissioner elections come around, and voters have begun to get a sense of what police commissioners have - or have not - done for the people on whose behalf they were elected.

Perhaps the message is already getting through.  YouGov has been doing rather well recently.  It predicts that the turnout tomorrow will be 28%, not 14%.  This is not far off the turnout in last spring's local elections, low though that was.  Indeed, it isn't all that far removed from that in local People's Pledge referendums - see the Cheadle and Hazel Grove results, for example - which some ConservativeHome readers have intepreted as indicating public enthusiasm for an E.U referendum.  YouGov may not be right, of course, but if they are it's not too much to ask that the Police Commissioner plan at the least be given the benefit of the doubt.


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