In a few days’ time, most of the country is going to get to elect a well-paid public official called the Police & Crime Commissioner for their area. I cannot resist the temptation to put forward my own thoughts on the subject, and the candidates here in Cambridgeshire. Make of this what you will; with information about the post being very thin on the ground, I hope it helps in formulating your own thoughts on the matter.
What is the Police & Crime Commissioner?
The police service in this country is one of the last great unreformed services, although given the changes which have been made in education and health in recent years by successive governments, whether you agree that reformation is always desirable is another matter. However, a recent poll shows that two-thirds of us have little confidence in central government’s running of the police. Putting an “independent” elected individual in charge of directing the service in each area seems like a reasonable improvement, but it comes fraught with danger. The public occasionally elects idiots to councils and central government, but at least those roles aren’t “solo” ones like this. Elect a fool (or a secret radical) to this post, and they could create havoc with local policing for four years.
Why are most candidates standing as “political party candidates”?
Frankly, I haven’t heard a good explanation for this, other than it might give people a quick way of identifying what a candidate might stand for. Nearly all of the “party” candidates are coming out with the same line that “I’m standing as myself, I’m just as independent as any of my rivals, and there’s no directive from the party”, so what is the point? The result will be that it puts independent candidates at a huge disadvantage, because the local parties have been able to spend time and money supporting “their” candidate. That just seems plain wrong to me, as it does to a number of members of different political parties I know, who have decided not to campaign for “their” candidates in this election. Several months ago, one party was brave enough to put forward a candidate who was not even a member of that party (which is extremely commendable) …and then seemed to change their minds, and selected someone “in house” instead.
There are five political parties putting forward candidates, and all have selected white, middle-aged (or older) men. There are two independent candidates, again middle-aged men. I’m not even going to mention the candidates’ parties from here on, because I simply don’t think that should be taken into consideration. I’ve read what little information has come my way (see references at the end) and I’ve listened to what I think was the only broadcast forum on the election, which was on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire’s Andie Harper’s Mid-Morning last week. It’s available to listen again here until polling day. I’ve also followed a lot of the conversation online over the past few days.
Amongst the least impressive candidates, in my opinion, were those from the three main political parties, who – both on the radio and in print – seem obsessed with having a go at each other and their parties’ records in government. On the radio, they were like kids bickering. The independents, and indeed those from the smaller parties, have gained a lot by letting the others get on with it.
I live in Cambridge, which swings every way politically, yet I have only had one (yes, one) leaflet through my door, which came a few weeks ago. Another candidate was given part of his political party’s regular local newsletter to put forward his point. With many politically active people being against the whole idea of this public post, it’s hard to believe that more than a tiny, single-digit percentage of Cambridgeshire residents will go to the polls having assessed the candidates properly. There’s also a whole group of people urging others to actively spoil their ballot paper to register a protest against the whole exercise. I don’t believe in this, because I think it opens up the way for someone to sleepwalk their way into a well-paid position which we’re all paying for, most likely someone representing one of the main political parties.
One thing to note is that this election is using the supplementary vote system, used in the Mayoral Elections in London and elsewhere, which I doubt many people will have come across before – so even amongst informed voters, there’s likely to be a lack of preparedness. With this system, you get an optional second vote. Assuming no candidate gets more than 50% of first choice votes, the two most popular candidates go through to a second round, in which they also get the votes of people who had them as a second choice but whose first choice has been eliminated.
Although there are flaws with this system, it can be good if you support a candidate who you think is unlikely to win, and you think that there are really only two candidates likely to win, one of who you strongly prefer over the other. Normally you might not vote for your preferred candidate at all, instead choosing to vote for one of the candidates who is more likely to win, especially if the other favourite is somebody you want to keep out. With the supplementary vote system, you can vote for your genuine choice, knowing that if (or more likely when) they fail to get in the top two places, your second choice will come into effect, assuming it’s one of the two leading candidates.
This will work in different ways for different people. It might favour the independents (certainly it would if there was only one, not two), although perhaps not enough to cause a surprise. Let’s suppose that the voting follows council elections, and that Conservative and Labour candidates are likely to lead the way after first-choice votes are counted. If you’re an “anyone but the Tory” voter, which has characterised part of the electorate for many years, you can vote for your genuinely preferred candidate in the first column, and the Labour candidate in the second column, knowing full well that if your candidate proves to be an also-ran, you’ve still managed to vote against the Conservative candidate. In that scenario, in a single-choice election, there would be a number of people who might have felt compelled to vote for Labour from the outset, despite it not being their genuinely preferred choice.
Who are the candidates?
The BBC Radio Cambridgeshire debate was well moderated but told us very little, I felt, other than conferring an even greater degree of seriousness and independence on the candidates from outside the three main parties through their detachment from the squabbling. You can read the formal election statements from the seven candidates here, but they’re a bit bland, as you might expect. Everyone wants to see more bobbies on the beat, less money spent on contracted-out services, etc, almost as if it’s a race to see who can shout “G4S! G4S!” the most frequently.
The most impressive piece of research I’ve seen came from Cambridgeshire Neighbourhood Watch, who actually formulated a good set of questions and posed them to each candidate. I’d urge you to read it if you have the time. However, some of the stuff I’ve picked out from there (and elsewhere) is below. It’s not meant to be a particularly independent analysis – if I haven’t liked a candidate, I’ll say so!
Ansar Ali has been on the Cambridgeshire Police Committee and the Cambridgeshire Police Authority for much of the last 20 years, so he knows his stuff. He seems to be very realistic with his plans, and says: “I don’t intend to be prescriptive and much will depend on the outcome of the budgeting work that is going on at the moment. Much of the current Policing Plan is good”. He certainly comes over as a very safe choice, especially for anyone concerned with the risks of unexpectedly electing a maverick to the post.
Sir Graham Bright was a Member of Parliament for Luton from 1979-97, and I guess unsurprisingly from a former politician, there’s been very little from him other than just ‘playing it safe’. His aims and policies are very generalised, and feature almost nothing with which most people would disagree. However, just this weekend he amazed the many followers of local blogger Richard Taylor by arrogantly and bumptiously dismissing requests for a public interview.
Paul Bullen is a Cambridgeshire magistrate who unfortunately had to phone in his contribution to the radio debate and who hasn’t been able to answer the Neighbourhood Watch questions either. Nor does he have his own website, from what I can see. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly alarming about him, but I really don’t have that much to go on.
Stephen Goldspink has been the only candidate to put a leaflet through my door, so hat-tip to him for that. A Peterborough councillor until this year, he has some unusual views (to seek “a mandate from the people of Cambridgeshire that every police station should fly the cross of St. George”) and some forthright ones (“a zero-tolerance attitude to petty crime and antisocial behaviour” and to “purge Cambridgeshire police of political correctness”). He does sound a little bit angry with the world, although some people may not think that’s a bad thing.
Farooq Mohammed is presenting himself as the conciliatory candidate between the public and the police. A restaurant-owner with no experience of public office, he puts that forward as a genuine advantage. He has also come up with the eye-catching commitment to take no salary for the first two years of the post, instead funding a “breakfast club” idea for primary school children in deprived areas. He stresses the need to get as many special-interest groups as possible involved with the Commissioner’s role.
Rupert Moss-Eccardt is a former County Councillor who has also worked on the IT side of policing. He does come across as being slightly skeptical about the whole P&CC post, saying “Whether it is right or wrong to elect Commissioners, the point of the electoral process is ultimately to let every citizen decide how they assess the Commissioner’s record and express their judgement at the ballot box. It may not suit the ego of some politicians but it is far more important that the Chief Constable and his people do a good job than for the Commissioner to interfere for its own sake.” He also says that “a single Commissioner is deluded if he sees him or herself as the source of all wisdom and innovation”.
Ed Murphy is a former Parish, County and City Councillor in Cambridgeshire and a former member of the Police Authority who led it in appointing a Chief Constable and Deputy. He supports reducing the cost of the police secretariat through an amalgamation with other forces, and says he will work on crime reduction down to “street representatives”. Another skeptic about the post, he says: “It is time (Police Authorities) were replaced, but the timing is wrong and Police and Crime Commissioners are unlikely to provide the solution.”
I can’t say I’m thrilled about any of the candidates, although I’m sure if they’d had more time and money to get their views across, one or two might have risen to the top. A couple don’t seem to like the idea of the post that much, and a couple don’t seem to like the idea of the public. That doesn’t leave much to choose between. However, of what’s left, I’ve been impressed by Farooq Mohammed, although Ansar Ali looks like a solid choice. I think I will opt for one of those, perhaps with Ed Murphy as my backup vote from the candidates who we must assume are more likely to win. Best of luck with working out your own views. With turnout likely to be tiny, I suppose our votes count more than in any other election, so I’m determined to cast mine.