This has been a record breaking week for Britain, although not in the way people remember from the heady days of our ‘Olympic Summer.’ The records in question were for the lowest turnout in a peacetime election.
On Thursday around 15% of the eligible population turned out to vote for one of forty one Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent that figure was down to just 9.46%. Maybe there was something good on television; either that or this is empirical proof that the voting public wanted nothing to do with this sad farrago.
Commenting on the low turnout Labour shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna told politics.co.uk that the election had been a ‘total shambles and the £100 million spent on it could have been spent on 3000 police officers’ instead. This was a line that would later be repeated by shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and has everything to do with nailing the false, as Labour would like it presented, contrast between their supposed profligacy and Tory fiscal rectitude.
The Electoral Reform Society hit out at the way the elections were organised, calling it a ‘comedy of errors’ and citing poor scheduling, a lack of information and a tepid coverage in the media as contributing factors. Civil rights group Liberty commented on the dangers posed by the ‘sole concentration of power in one elected official’ and warned against the risk of political interference in the way the police operate.
Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP so unworldly he took his nanny with him on the campaign trail and seems like a minor character from a PG Wodehouse novel felt obliged to comment on what he called an electoral ‘experiment’, saying ‘nobody really knows if its worked, £100 million would seem to be a high price to pay for this.’
Anybody who thinks because most people couldn't be bothered to vote for them the arrival of a PCC in their region is a matter of no concern is quite wrong. This is a post that gives its holder a large salary, the power to fire the Chief Constable is he or she wishes to do so and all the ‘face time’ with the media an ambitious politician could ever want.
The way the election was organised was a shambles, the only excuse for holding an election in November should be a national emergency, and creating a sinecure for party hacks is definitely not one. As for the £5000 deposit required from candidates, this was a blatant attempt to keep independent candidates out in favour of people on the payroll of one of the three main parties. The whole point of having free open elections is that anyone from the ambitious young man or woman with one eye on Downing Street and the oddball dressed as a carrot has an equal opportunity to take part.
What should really stick in our collective craw though is the thinking behind the whole sorry project, which seems to boil down to a mad notion that all you need to do to engage the public is give them lots of things to vote for. Understood in this way politics is, supposedly, a bit like the X-Factor, leaving no opening for the hard but necessary work of building networks of shared experience that people can use to take control of their lives and communities.
All that has been achieved at ruinous cost is a move from having the police ruin by a largely anonymous Police Authority to electing a PCC who will most likely caper in the media spotlight but do little to lead a rational debate into how complicated and increasingly fractured communities should be policed. Instead it will be all skewed crime statistics and initiatives designed to grab a few easy headlines for the incumbent.
The Electoral Commission is to hold a review into why the turnout was so low, I am not at all hopeful that it will come even close to considering why so many people feel alienated by politics. It certainly won’t entertain the possibility of giving communities the chance to vote again on whether or not they want a PCC in a few years time. The government have learnt the lesson of New Labour’s experience over elected mayors, they too were once seen as the bright new hope for re-engaging the public with politics, when many of the towns saddled with this expensive and unwanted office voted for it to be scrapped.
This shows, sadly, that in our brave new world you can vote for anything you like; apart from real change.