Public engagement, Merseyside

The England and Wales Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections are nearly upon us. Sigh. Yet another promise of greater democracy when in fact it is no such thing.

The reasons why these elections are barely above the level of a Monty Python joke have been well-rehearsed, but the principal problem is this: the lack of funding for candidates. Election campaigns cost a lot of money – not just the £5000 deposit, but phone lines, photocopiers, paper, printing, staff to run them (volunteers and otherwise), petrol, heating (it’s a cold November), bunting, banners, posters and flyers, all of which can run rapidly into the Electoral Commission’s spending cap per candidate.

In my district, Warwickshire, that’s £76,476, one of the lowest limits in the country, but still well beyond most people’s means. Imagine, for a moment, how someone would raise that amount if they had to rely just on family, friends and donations from strangers. Not easy. Which is why those who already have resources and networks are running. This has always been true. It was either fantasy, stupidity or sheer mendacity — take your pick — that led the Home Office to pretend otherwise when they claimed that ordinary folks would stand.

The other big lie — I guess I picked “mendacity” — is that this is an opportunity for “local” people to decide local priorities. Right. Because the local views of, say, a working class district of Coventry are going to dominate over the local views of a moderately hip quarter of Leamington Spa and the moderately don’t-give-a-toss views of the Audi Q7 drivers of my corner of South Warwickshire (sorry, “North Cotswolds” — says it all). When it’s the latter who are going to turn out in these elections and not the former, while the middle group snipe.

There is nothing “local” about these districts. They are huge. And the PCCs are going to come under continuing pressure to respond to the needs of the well-educated, well-heeled, highly-engaged and comfortable quarters, ensuring that those from the “threatening” areas are well controlled, patrolled, coralled.

If this were genuine localism, budgets would be going up, local police station hours would be increasing, officer numbers would be rising, victim support units would be expanding, and more. The reverse is happening. Indeed, police are retreating further into their call centres and “intelligence” (less human intelligence; more statistics, profiles, algorithms).

Calls have been made to boycott these elections, for these and other reasons. But given all the above, I think a boycott would be self-defeating. It would hand the election to those who will protect the interests of the Q7 drivers and demonise the others.

In the interests of applying at least some democratic pressure from a diverse range of people, it is imperative that the “middle” don’t just snipe, but get out and vote. It is likewise imperative that the representatives of the chronically under-represented try their best to motivate a vote too.

Whether it will make much difference to the general trend towards “intelligence-led” policing, I have my doubts. But better a somewhat ineffective brake on such moves than no brake at all.

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