15 November 2012

You have the right to remain silent

Tomorrow, literally dozens of people up and down the country will be voting for the first time to choose a local Police Commissioner. In keeping with the spirit of electoral firsts, I'm going to do two things that I've never done before as well.

The first is to tell you how you how I'm voting. Although you may guess my political affiliations, so far in twenty years, I have never actually told anyone how I vote in public elections, not even my wife. As we are patronisingly told every year, people died so we could vote (an argument that I have never found particularly convincing: people have died for a whole host of causes, some barmy, some noble, but the fact that someone threw herself under the King's horse doesn't make me beholden to her whims). More importantly, campaigners for popular suffrage also championed secret ballots just as passionately, to prevent the circumventing of the democratic process, which I think is worth respecting just as much when I turn out to cast my mark at the polling station.

The second thing I shall be doing for the first time is spoiling my ballot paper, as a signal of my opinion about the new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). There is no popular mandate for this policy - it was bunged into the post-election Coalition agreement as a makeweight for Nick Clegg being allowed to use the loo in Downing Street. A fact that is borne out by the record low turnout expected across the land, as Dave's Big Society gesture attracts the smallest of crowds. I am using the only mechanism I have to register my displeasure at the whole unappetising spectacle.

Not only do most people not know what the new Commissioners are supposed to be doing, they don't know what they are replacing. At present, Police Authorities are responsible for all the powers the PCCs will inherit: Budget setting, hire & firing of the Chief Constable, determining local criminal justice priorities. These bodies are composed of local councillors, magistrates, criminal justice experts and appointed representatives from among the general public. This amalgam of expert and lay opinion, elected and unelected will now be replaced by a single party hack with one eye on the TV news and the other on the ballot box. This is not some great revolution in crime fighting - new dynamism sweeping away red tape and getting More Bobbies Back On The Beat (TM). It is taking exactly the same powers currently in the hands of an expert body, and giving them to a failed politician. It's the concentration of considerable power with very few checks apart the quadrennial trip to the electorate.

It has all the hallmarks of an eye-catching Big Idea for the Big Society - Tory party Thought Architects no doubt imagined Mom & Pop candidates standing to give a voice to the man on the Clapham Omnibus, without a thought as to how they might fund an election across a wide area without party backing. The means the reality is, of course, the overwhelming majority of candidates belong to political parties, and are standing on party platforms - exactly the opposite of what was intended. And in the absence of any other criteria, name recognition will count for much. To cap it all, multi-party contests will be using the ever-baffling Supplementary Vote system to ensure everyone's second choice is elected.

This unwelcome and unnecessary politicisation of the police is the classic example of a solution in search of a problem - something beloved of all politicians down the ages. Because no-one has actually been able to say exactly what problem the new PCCs were supposed to be solving. Crime has been consistently falling for twenty years, police continue, overall, to retain high levels of popular support and respect. Even the high-profile problems there have been - from the Hillsborough cover-up to cash-for-information to journalists - have been symptomatic of either front line cultural or management failings. Not the sort of thing individual Police Commissioners are best placed to tackle.

So why stop at the police? Why not heads of PCTs, Traffic Wardens, dinnerladies and dustmen. Why shouldn't we be given the chance to pick every public servant, repeatedly, on a never-ending conveyor-belt of choice? Maybe one day, if we prove ourselves capable of keeping up with the exponential growth of elections, we could even get to choose our Head of State? But Dave would probably think that ridiculous.

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