Apathy threatens vote for crime fighters22 October 2012
Not since the general election of October 1974 have Britons had to venture out in cold and darkness to exercise their democratic right. But in just over three weeks’ time, residents of England and Wales will be asked to brave wintry conditions to elect their local police and crime commissioner (PCC) – a new brand of crime fighter who will decide how to spend force budgets, set policing priorities and have the power to hire and fire chief constables.
Crucial in ensuring that the public know about these novel and unseasonal elections is the Electoral Commission’s public awareness campaign, which begins on Monday. A YouTube video featuring animated character “Victor the voter” will explain the unfamiliar supplementary vote system, while an information booklet on the commissioner’s role will be sent to 21m households across the country.
But despite these efforts – and the Home Office’s own TV advertisement, featuring scenes of vandalism, burglary and violence on Britain’s streets – electoral campaigners still fear the turnout will be low enough to undermine the poll’s legitimacy. The Electoral Reform Society predicted this summer that only 18.5 per cent of voters would participate, and Katie Ghose, the organisation’s chief executive, is still concerned that turnout could be as low as 20 per cent. In particular, she criticises ministers’ refusal to fund mail shots introducing the local candidates.
“There is still more [ministers] need to do to plug the information gap – how do you get the faces and voices of candidates across with only one month to go?,” Ms Ghose asks. “The government has said all along that these roles are about reconnecting policing with the public. If as few as one in five of us do turn up to vote then there will be real questions about whether PCCs can legitimately speak for us.”
Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat crime minister, has already made clear that he would not be happy with a 20 per cent turnout. But the precedent for low participation was set earlier this year, when less than a quarter of eligible voters turned out in Manchester and Nottingham to decide whether their cities should have elected mayors. More pertinent to the PCC polls, a survey by the charity Victim Support last month showed that only 47 per cent of the public were even aware of the November 15 elections.
It is perhaps emblematic that last Friday’s debate on PCC election turnout was itself sparsely attended by MPs. But Damian Green, policing minister, defended his policy to the thin audience, arguing that even if only a few people voted, PCCs would still be more accountable than the “unelected, unaccountable and largely invisible” police authorities which currently oversee local forces. He also dismissed calls for a postal candidate information campaign, saying this would cost £30m on top of the existing £75m price of the elections.
One solution put forward by the Reform think-tank is that the new commissioners should be awarded control of prisons, probation, courts, fire and ambulance services as well as policing in order to increase voters’ engagement. “Greater powers for commissioners would lead to greater public interest and higher turnout at elections,” Andrew Haldenby, Reform’s director, suggests.
However, one senior policing figure was doing nothing to encourage greater participation in the poll over the weekend. Lord Blair, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner and a strong opponent of the PCC policy, believes that a low turnout is the only way to halt the scheme.
“I have never ever said this before but I actually hope people don’t vote because that’s the only way we’re going to stop this,” he told Sky News on Sunday.
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