Some commentators are talking about the low turnout undermining the Commissioners’ legitimacy, leaving them no mandate for radical action. That’s true. And beside the point. Because I suspect that the PCCs, while nominally in charge and having lots of formal decision-making duties, will in fact have little actual power.
Most power will, as it has for a long time, lie with Chief Constables.
Think about it. Police budgets have been cut by around 20%, with further cuts to come. The resources for the PCCs to run their offices are miniscule already and may fall again, despite their limited revenue raising powers. They are civilians, some with relatively senior political experience but fewer with direct experience of or knowledge about police operations, and even fewer at a senior, strategic level. They are expected to set up their offices, get up to speed on all the jargon and technicalities, set plans and budgets and agree them with senior officers with decades or more of experience…and braid on their hats and medals on their chests…in ten weeks.
And those senior officers are just going to lie back and say “Yes, sir” to every idea that pops out of the PCC’s election manifesto? Not likely.
Instead, I predict that the PCCs will be “captured” by their chief constables almost instantly. They will be bombarded by lectures on intelligence-led policing, scared witless by long, technical yet spookily-vague threat assessments, subjected to “In all my xx years of policing, Ma’am, I have always found that …”, and so on. And in the ten weeks they have to produce plans, they will leap on ideas that come pre-packaged, that don’t require long periods of independent research and analysis. In other words, the ideas presented to them by the Chief Constables, ACPO, and so on.
PCCs in charge? Give me a break. Even those with decades of political skill and nous will find this very difficult indeed.
And that’s why I think that, although the legitimacy issues will further undermine the PCCs, they are by no means the main problem. The PCCs have their hands tied behind their backs, and greater electoral mandates would not have changed that fundamental fact.
If you want to hear me in full grumpy old man mode, thereare interviews on BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire this morning (it will be about 1:05:00 into the recording) and afternoon (about 5 minutes in).
In less grumpy mode, there are lots of alternative approaches to citizen engagement than just elections. The PCC debacle – and it is that – seems to me to be a (wilful?) failure of imagination, not a failure of democracy per se. More on that in another post some time soon.