Police and Crime Commissioners and democracy
The Howard Leagueâ€™s programme U R Boss is working to ensure that young people in conflict with the law are involved and consulted by the new police and crime commissioners (PCCs) during their election campaign and in the plans they draw up once they are elected. What we are carefully not doing is a campaign to get out the vote, as that could easily stray into the realm of party politics.
Consulting users is an essential principle of efficient public services. The children and young adults we are working with are users of policing services as well as being citizens, and they have a right to be consulted. Things can get very expensive and wasteful if the very people who are at the front end of services are ignored. Young people who have been through the penal system have strong views about what might have helped their life take a different turn and policing can sometimes be a major part of that.
We launched the campaign in July at an event in Parliament and will be holding fringe events at the party conferences to discuss how young people and the new PCCs can best work together, with our young advisors taking a central part in the meetings.
Since we launched, I have been involved in various debates, some on Twitter, about what level of voter turnout would confer legitimacy on the police and crime commissioners. This is something I feel strongly about personally, as I have been an elected representative with, at that time, the largest majority of any councillor in London. The privilege and responsibility of being elected is both onerous and exhilarating but it is important to know that you have a legitimate mandate from your electorate.
Home office minister, Nick Herbert MP, who has championed the idea of PCCs, has been quoted as saying that the PCCs will be more legitimate than the current police authorities because they will be elected, and that it doesnâ€™t matter by how many people. I am not going to comment on whether PCCs are a good or bad thing, but I think that Mr Herbert is wrong that the turnout is irrelevant. If a PCC is elected on a turnout of 10% or 15%, then there must, in a democracy, be a question about their mandate. The PCC will have a huge, multi-million budget, strategic and policy oversight of the policing of a significant geographical areas and powers to hire and fire a chief constable.
Low turnout poses the risk of a race to the bottom in policy terms, where playing on the prejudices of those on the fringes and driving them out to vote can be as effective as winning over people with more measured opinions. Extremist candidates always lose out if turnout rises, but a low turnout in an election focussed on issues as emotive as crime and justice is particularly worrying.
There are lots of public services managed by committees that are not elected. The NHS is being handed over to un-elected committees of GPs. Free schools and academies are being taken out of control of elected local councils. Many essential services, like water and transport, are provided by unelected companies for profit.
Elections do not, in and of themselves, confer legitimacy, particularly if the election is ignored or boycotted by 80% or more of the population. For this experiment to work, the government must find a way to engage the public with the process.