Wednesday, 27 April 2016

An election with the volume turned off.

There is an election for a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Staffordshire taking place in just over a week. Actually most counties are electing a PCC on 5th May, although you'd have been forgiven for not noticing since the temperature of the debate locally or nationally has barely reached lukewarm.

Trying to get a picture of what, if anything, was going on I headed to the Medical Institute in Hartshill to attend a debate between the candidates. There were four on the platform, challengers Paul Woodhead (Green Party), George Adamson (Labour) and Harold Gregory (Ukip) up against Tory incumbent Matthew Ellis, a fifth candidate Natalie Devaney (Independent) chose not to attend.

I got there early and stood around in the foyer bar outside the Wade lecture hall taking in an atmosphere that was as tepid as I'd been expecting. The organisers had predicted around a hundred people were going to attend, the final figure, by my estimate maybe seventy turned up.

Those of us who arrived early stood around in the foyer at what was supposed to be a 'meet and greet' with the candidates, only two of whom took part. Green Paul Woodhead told me he was 'confident' about how the debate was going to go and that his campaign was really all about 'raising the party's profile'. Harold Gregory spent the whole time sat at a table at the far end of the room with a name with name on handily placed in front of him being pretty much ignored by everyone. Every so often he would get up and slope off to the bar, giving the impression that he wasn't the man of the hour.

Matthew Ellis turned up fashionably late, strolling into the auditorium five minutes before proceedings were about to begin, exuding as he did so the relaxed, 'this is just a formality' air of a champion defending his title against an under-card of journeymen. That is unfair to two of the other candidates, but given the power of incumbency and the indifference of the public towards the whole business it may be a fair prediction of the outcome.

The sound quality in the large auditorium wasn't good to start with and got progressively worse throughout the evening. This made listening to the candidate's opening statements a little like trying to tune in an old LW radio.

Between the pops and crackles I was able to make out Paul Woodhead talking about his wide experience in, non police related, public service and his determination to hold 'professionals to account', no bad thing considering the mistakes and malpractices of senior officers in South Yorkshire Police highlighted at the conclusion of the Hillsborough enquiry this week. He also said that he wanted to 'involve' the public in deciding how they are to be policed through the creation of a 'community policing plan'.

Next up Matthew Ellis, doing the headmaster of a minor public school addressing the parents on speech day routine familiar to anyone who has seen him address PACT meetings at the same venue , defended his record since taking office in 2012. He highlighted the investment made in new technology during his watch and how many officers this had got back out onto the streets and concluded by saying that policing in Staffordshire was better now than when he took charge.

Harold Gregory built on the non-charisma of his performance during the meet and greet session. We found out that he was a former soldier and that he wasn't happy with how the police have changed in recent years, mostly you imagine because none of the officers he's met resembled dear old Jack Warner. He said that he wanted the police to work with schools more, they do a lot already but protecting that work from the attentions of the bean counters is no bad thing and that he's like to see more police on the streets, but if that was too expensive more PCSO's would do just as well.

George Adamson, himself an ex police officer, gave a speech that suggests he along with Paul Woodhead is one of two candidates likely to give Ellis something like a run for his money. He spoke about his opposition to cutting police budgets and support for neighbourhood policing, he also said that unlike Matthew Ellis he has no ambition to see the PCC take over control of the local fire service. What impressed most though was his understanding of the challenges faced by police officers at the sharp end and his determination to bring that into how decisions are made.

The questions from the floor saw the candidates address issues including the proposal that any future applicants to join the police would need to have a university degree, to their credit all opposed this bit of Whitehall silliness. George Adamson said that 'common sense' was the primary qualification a police officer needed, Paul Woodhead said there needed to be a balance between officers with academic and vocational qualifications and Matthew Ellis said that he opposed a requirement for officers to have degrees because it may be change their relationship with the public.

Asked about increasing diversity in the force all four candidates said more needed to be done to attract more BME recruits, to this Paul Woodhead added that work also needed to be done to engage with the LGBT community too.

As debates go this was a decidedly tepid affair, maybe that is part of the wider problem, there is little about choosing a PCC, essentially a senior manager, that excites ideological fervour; or even, it seems, general interest.

Matthew Ellis did have a couple of sticky moments later in the evening, he didn't play curve balls about the powers of PCSO's to hand out traffic fines and the cost of his well staffed back office at all well. Just for a moment the mask slipped and he betrayed, briefly, the annoyance of the entitled with the public for being so rude as to ask awkward questions.

Paul Woodhead and George Adamson had bouncers of their own to play in relation to their respective parties opposing the existence of PCC's but still standing candidates for the role. They managed to return them though by emphasising they would work to involve the public more and use the role to fight cuts to policing and other public services.

Despite the awfulness of the sound system this was a well organised debate and although, I fear, it did little to energise a largely indifferent electorate the intentions behind it were good.

Matthew Ellis emerged from an evening where he had looked by turns bored and annoyed as the nominal winner, that said Paul Woodhead and George Adamson showed themselves to be challengers capable of giving him at least a run for his money.

The whole event was though pretty much an anti-climax, this time round the turnout is likely to be higher than the dismal 11.9% achieved in 2012 thanks to being piggy-backed on the local elections, but not by that much. Ellis looks certain to be returned to office, but with a mandate that does little to make the role of Commissioner any more relevant.

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