A year from today we will be in the throes of elections for police and crime commissioners (PCCs).
It is easy to be cynical about PCCs. Labour has spent the past 18 months opposing the very existence of the posts. Our opposition has been skilfully led by Yvette Cooper. She has pointed out every inconsistency and unnecessary expense, not least the shift of elections from May to November which has cost us all £25 million. This, you’ll recall, was because Nick Clegg fears (rightly) a Lib Dem collapse at the May local elections.
The problem is that, being in opposition, we were unable to stop the Police Reform and Social Responsibility bill being passed. For all Labour’s speeches, the police and crime commissioners will become a reality. Labour now faces the difficult gymnastics of a complete about-face. It’s not impossible: Ken Livingstone managed it over the London Mayoralty.
There was some loose talk at the time of party conference about Labour boycotting the elections, to leave the field open to ‘independent’ candidates. This is a terrible idea. It must be resisted. There’s a basic presumption that Labour should stand candidates in every democratic election. To deliberately stand aside merely boosts the anti-politics narrative that corrodes our system. It would make it more likely for ‘independents’ from the BNP and EDL to win on small turnouts. Or even Nick Ross.
So Labour must stand serious grown-up candidates in every constabulary. The party’s NEC must draw up a selection process which engages local parties. We discussed PCC elections at our local party meeting during the week, and there was not much enthusiasm. Local CLPs should be able to make nominations, and our candidates should be selected by one-member-one-vote across the police areas. Instead of just hoping candidates should emerge, Labour should be actively recruiting candidates who share our values, and have a history in tackling crime and policing. We should select our candidates in the Spring, to allow them time to build their profiles across their areas.
The powers of the new PCCs will be wide-ranging. The police budget will be passed directly to the PCC. They will allocate resources after consulting with the police chief constable. They will monitor the performance of the police. They will appoint the chief constable. They can have them sacked. They will be scrutinised by new policing and crime panels, comprising local councillors and other co-opted members. In time, Labour should argue that a third of these new panels should be directly elected by the public, to ensure democratic accountability at this level too.
The PCC will be a significant figure in the community, with real powers to direct local policing. It won’t be a job for the faint-hearted, with reductions to budgets making tough decisions inevitable. The opportunities are huge for Labour. By embracing the new structures, Labour can be on the right side of the reform argument. It is vital that Labour does not default into a defence of the status quo against every Tory reform. Labour should be outstripping the Tories’ misguided attempts at reform of the public services with bigger, badder, bolder ideas of our own.
We have also understand, since John Smith appointed Tony Blair as shadow home secretary 20 years ago, that the voters will punish a political party perceived as soft on crime.
The Economist in May suggested that:
“The introduction of elected police commissioners, who will have the power to set policing priorities for constabularies, could single-handedly put the Tories at the vanguard of the debate on crime, casting them as champions of people power against a Labour Party who think that chief constables know best”
Labour must reverse this position as fast as possible.
We can put forward a positive message about crime reduction, tackling anti-social behaviour and support for victims. We can highlight the impact of Tory and Lib Dem cuts. We can identify new voters for Labour and rebuild our relationships with the communities who deserted us in 2010. In the places where we win, we will have Labour representation with the chance to demonstrate Labour values in action.
Labour must view the election of police commissioners as an opportunity. Our leaders need to start saying so, and swiftly.