Police and Crime Commissioners: have new elections intensified the political colouring of the role?

Although last week’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections saw a 10% increase in voter turn out, up on November 2012, a third of PCCs did not stand for a second term and there was a significant drop in the number of ‘independents’ standing overall.

Author and Policing and Criminal Justice academic Bryn Caless asks whether the evident politicisation of the PCC role along party lines may alienate already limited public support in time…

Bryn CalessThe elections of 40 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) which took place on 6 May in England and Wales alongside those for local councils, indicate that overt politicisation of the role has increased.

In November 2012, the first ever PCC elections were held amidst controversies about the politicisation of the police, there were worries about the high bar for qualification and the expensive candidacy fee (at £5,000, ten times that for a prospective MP). In 2016, all such concerns persist.

Cuckoo

The police themselves were initially suspicious of this cuckoo in their nest, while the media have been unremittingly hostile to a ‘mediocre’ Conservative initiative to replace what Teresa May, the Home Secretary, has called ‘anonymous and ineffective’ Police Authorities. (Actually, the ‘elected representative’ had been Labour’s idea some ten years earlier.)

Since the elections of 2012, the police have largely come to terms with the notion of a directly-elected, full-time commissioner who holds them to account, and, aside from odd blips such as an ill-advised Channel 4 documentary and spats about PCCs’ expenses, the commissioners have slipped off the national media radar.

Not so locally, where they have assiduously cultivated press, radio and TV in their police areas and most have tried hard to put themselves across to the public. Some have found common cause with their police teams in resisting further budget cuts, some have fought their police ‘corner’ assiduously, others continued to be at perpetual loggerheads not only with the police but also with their appointed Police and Crime Panels which are supposed to hold the more extravagant PCCs in check, but which, in practice, do nothing of the kind.

“About a third of PCCs did not stand for a second term in 2016”

About a third of PCCs did not stand for a second term in 2016. Of the 40 PCC posts contested this time, 20 were won by Conservative candidates, 15 were won by Labour, 2 (unexpectedly) by Plaid Cymru and only 3 were won by independents.

Even though a survey conducted in 2010 by Ipsos Mori indicated that the public preferred ‘politically independent’ candidates to oversee the work of the police, the results this year suggest that there has been instead a tangible shift to overt political affiliation. ‘Independents’ have been reduced from 12 to 3; Labour PCCs have also increased and Conservatives have gained 7. Plaid Cymru hold two of the four Welsh commissions for the first time.

PCCs represent the public’s worries about crime and anti-social behaviour to the police. The acid test whether PCCs do this well or not comes in two parts: one is the number of PCCs returned to office after standing a second time; the second by increasing the 15.1% who voted in November 2012 (the smallest ever percentage to vote on a national issue in England and Wales).

Disappointing turnout

This time, the election of PCCs ran in parallel with local and mayoral elections, but the overall turnout was a disappointing 25.2% (though much higher in Wales at 38%). This is an increase of 10.1% on 2012, but still does not give PCCs a resounding mandate. The number of PCCs re-elected was 15, fewer than half of those who stood a second time, and several high profile PCC incumbents, such as Kevin Hurley in Surrey, Sir Clive Loader in Leicestershire and Christopher Salmon in Dyfed-Powys, were unceremoniously ousted.

“90% of the public could not name their PCC”

We might conclude that this new round of results represents a marginal endorsement of the role; however, a recent (pre-election) poll by the Electoral Reform Society found that 90% of the public could not name their PCC. There is much work still to be done by PCCs to ‘sell’ what they do to a largely indifferent electorate.

We seem to be some distance from widespread acceptance of PCCs as public champions of police accountability, despite the efforts of post holders to cultivate a positive public image. The media’s attitudes are still ambivalent: nationally, hostility to the PCC continues; locally (by contrast), the media and the PCC seem to have a symbiotic relationship where PCCs provide regular (often pre-digested) crime and police news and the media reflect some at least of the PCC’s “spin”. For you and me it seems, although PCCs remain persistently anonymous, their roles now have darker political colouring than before.

Bryn Caless is Visiting Senior Research Fellow (Policing and Criminal Justice) at Canterbury Christ Church University

A full list of PCCs elected can now be seen at the APCC website here

Police and Crime Commissioners [FC] 4web

Bryn Caless and Jane Owens wrote Police and Crime Commissioners: The transformation of police accountability after interviewing more than half of all incumbent PCCs and their chief police officer teams.  Their study was published by Policy Press in March 2016.

Police and Crime Commissioners is available to purchase here from the Policy Press website.

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