New Police Commissioners step into a vacuum

Owain ap Gareth finds that piecemeal tinkering with democratic reform fails to engage voters

Yesterday, the four Welsh Police and Crime Commissioners began their duties having taken an oath of impartiality to serve all sections of the public “without fear or favour”. Given the numbers who voted, the spoilt ballots, and the fact that the National Assembly was against the creation of their posts, they will have a tough job in establishing themselves in their new role.

Chiefs Johnston, Michael, Roddick and Salmon face an uphill battle. Turnout was a derisory 14.9 per cent – almost down to half the previous 28.1 per cent record for low turnout in Wales, in the 1999 European elections.

The number of invalid ballots in the Police Commissioner elections was exceptionally high, indicating there was a strong political motivation amongst those who spoilt their voting papers. In the 2010 UK general election the percentage of spoilt ballots was just 0.3 per cent; in the last London Mayoral election the ratio stood at 1.8 per cent. Last Thursday in Dyfed-Powys a whopping 4.3 per cent (2,904 votes) were declared invalid. In Ceredigion the ratio stood at an incredible 11 per cent. The ratio was relatively high in the other Police Authority areas as well:

  • South Wales had 4,465 spoil ballot papers – 3 per cent.
  • North Wales 2,150 – 2.8 per cent.
  • Gwent 1,555 – 2.5 per cent.

So, if the invalid ballots are discounted from the turn-out, the actual percentage of the electorate that actually voted in last week’s election – or voted to any effect – slumps even further.

Questions have instantly been raised about the Chiefs’ mandate, which in turn brings into question how effectively they can hold the police to account. It would be manifestly unfair to place the blame on candidates’ shoulders, but we must question the reasons for, and the impact of the low turnout. Indeed, the Electoral Commission is undertaking an inquiry into the low turnout.

It is fair to ask what was different about these elections. David Cameron noted that first elections were bound to have teething problems. However, turnout for the first elections for the Welsh and London Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament were significantly higher. Indeed, the first election in the Welsh Assembly remains the highest turnout in its history. Similarly, Mayoral referendums and first mayoral elections in England have not had nearly so derisory a turnout as was seen last week. The figures can be found here. As Chiefs develop in their role a higher turnout next time round seems likely. But this is no excuse for a poor show first time round resulting from inadequate communication about the role of the Commissioners by the UK Government.

One thing different about these elections is the way they were conducted which was bound to drive turnout down. That the Home Office did not make provisions for a bilingual election, leading to the binning of 2.3 million English-only ballots at a cost of £350,000, was a symptom of a wider malaise.

The lack of a free mailshot and broadcast for candidates meant that voters knew little about the candidates or their positions on crime and policing issues. Dispensing with both types of publicity is known from previous by-elections to depress turnout, as is staging an election in the semi-darkness of late November. The Home Office seemed to take for granted that all voters would access the internet for information about candidates. Given that 31 per cent of Welsh people do not use the internet, this mean’t that nearly a third of the electorate were excluded from the outset. The decision not to link the elections to local elections in May increased costs but also meant the Police elections also lost the chance of an extra boost in turnout. Taking into account all of these factors, in August the Electoral Reform Society projected  a turnout of 18.5%. In the event we were proved over-optimistic.

The Home Office must take its fair share of the blame. Such obvious blunders and mismanagement should not be allowed to happen again. Blaming it on ‘voter apathy’ will not do when citizens were not informed of the choices they are making.

The Government’s management of the election gave the impression that it was a sideshow. Political scientists often distinguish between the importance to voters of different elections, which in turn reflect the will to go out and vote in them. These are described as ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order’ elections. The Westminster election is viewed as a ‘first-order’ election and the Welsh Assembly as ‘second order’, as most voters view Westminster as making the decisions that most affect their lives. A lower turnout in different elections is a normal state of affairs.

However, it is likely that we need to expand the terminology to include ‘third order’ or maybe ‘fourth order’ elections in view of this new turnout. Not only did people not know who they were voting for, they did not know what these elections were for. The question ‘Why are we having these elections?’ was not properly answered and this has to do with the Government’s wider vision and messaging.

In reality the questions of what was the role of the Police Commissioners, and the point of their elections, feeds into the questions of how the elections were publicised. As any avid viewer of the television programme The Apprentice will know, if it’s unclear what the point is, it’s difficult to ‘sell’.

The Conservatives’ rhetoric on ‘localism’ has certainly been diluted in the transition from opposition to coalition government. The move from adviser Steve Hilton’s radical pitch to ‘become part of the government’ (anyone remember that?) to the pragmatism of Westminster government have left the new post of Police Commissioners filling a vacuum where discussion of local democracy and what it means should be. It is little wonder that voters could not work out what the role is for when the Government has failed to articulate it themselves. They have also failed to put it in the broader context of what a good local democracy should look like.

People in different parties will have different views on specific local democratic reforms, but there is little doubt that there is a broader debate that needs to be had on what a good local democracy looks like. Only in a country as centralised as the UK could we describe a post covering large regions of around 750,000 people as ‘local’ policing. Such a ‘localist’ move is also a centralisation of oversight from the local council Police Authorities to a single individual at a regional level.

The vacuum of debate around the Police Commissioners has itself been an indication of the problems with the piecemeal approach to democratic reform across the political spectrum. The old British tradition of ‘muddling along’ will not do. Without a wider vision of what democratic reform should be and what our local democracy should look like, specific proposals such as these are built on sand.

The next Police Commissioner elections will take place in 2016, and we may then be able to test what this role is, or how it can develop. It is also on the same day as the Welsh general election. Following the Silk Commission recommendations, there may be a Welsh referendum on further devolved taxation powers that day. Perhaps the lessons for Welsh democratic reformers is precisely that piecemeal tinkering falls on fallow ground with voters. Any future changes will need to be argued for with a wider vision and clarity of purpose as to the aims of any proposed reforms to our democracy.

Owain Llyr ap Gareth is Campaigns and Research Officer of the Electoral Reform Society Wales.

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