This weekend, a bumper mailing from head office will start to land on the doormats of thousands of Labour Party members across the UK, with NEC and NPF postal ballot papers.
But it will contain an even more important set of ballot papers – for the selection of Labour candidates for the police commissioner elections in November. These will be hugely influential roles, agreeing budgets and strategy with chief constables, representing the public to the police, and being an elected figure-head atop the constabularies of England and Wales. In many areas, the police commissioner taking up office on Monday 26th November will be Labour. They will become the most prominent and influential Labour politician in their area, responsible for a bigger chunk of the public sector than any shadow minister.
Yesterday, the Home Office announced that the new police commissioners will be expected to swear an ‘oath of impartiality’ on taking up office. If you have people elected as police commissioners on party political tickets (and my prediction is that none of the ‘independents’ will win, if Siobhan Benita’s fifth placing in London with 3.8% of the votes is any sort of guide) then what does ‘impartial’ mean?
Of course police commissioners must not interfere with the operational running of a police force, any more than the leader of a council gets directly involved in child protection or housing allocation. And of course, like a Member of Parliament or councillor, they must represent everyone in their patch, not just those who voted for them. But will a Labour police commissioner behave in the same way as a Tory or a BNP commissioner? Will how they spend their time, the meetings they hold, the visits they conduct, and the speeches they make be identical?
No they won’t. They will reflect their Labour values, and the pledges they made in these elections. Presumably, they will hold local surgeries and take up case-work. So they will be partial, not impartial. A Labour police commissioner will champion the victims of crime, and ensure the poorest estates and most deprived neighbourhoods get their fair share of policing. They will speak up against Hate Crimes, and domestic violence. They will campaign against the government’s 20% cuts to policing and the loss of front-line officers. They will oppose privatisation of core services such as police patrols.
An oath promising to serve the people is a positive thing. It will be a marked improvement on the MPs’ oath to ‘solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law’ which even the most red of red republicans must swear before taking up their seats. We should hope that an oath sworn by a police commissioner should contain instead a pledge to serve the people and the law. But an oath of ‘impartiality’ is a nonsense if it means commissioners should not act like politicians. If ministers didn’t want politicians, they shouldn’t be spending £75 million of our money on elections to elect more politicians.
There’s a growing sense that the government is panicking over police commissioners. When they were dreamt up in opposition by a Tory think tank, they were supposed to be part of a radical reshaping of our democracy, with more direct influence and control by the people. Tory MPs in each constabulary area were charged with finding new and eye-catching candidates to excite the public. In Sussex, the job was given to that Tory arch-moderniser Nicholas Soames. His only notable acts have been to carve out the sitting chair of the police authority Cllr Steve Waight, and to insist that the candidate be selected at a one-off hustings meeting by whichever card-carrying Tories show up.
Nick Herbert, the police minister, encouraged ‘dynamic leaders, community champions, pioneers and entrepreneurs to consider standing for this office. They need not be politicians and they could be independent of political parties.’
Yet the last best hope for the Tories, Colonel Tim Collins in Kent, announced this week that he would not, after all, be seeking the Conservative nomination. So we are left with a crop of Conservative candidates who represent ‘business as usual’: councillors, ex-members of the police authority, overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class. Grey, dull committee men. It’s a nightmare for ministers. They wanted celebs and entrepreneurs, and they’ve ended up with shire Tories. The black labrador, Range Rover, gymkhana set are back.
The Labour candidates coming forward represent a diverse spread of backgrounds. John Prescott is seeking the Labour nomination in Humberside, up against the former chief constable Keith Hunter. In Gloucestershire, Rupi Dhanda has been selected. In Manchester, former minister Tony Lloyd is standing. Sarah Russell has been selected in Leicestershire. On Merseyside, Jane Kennedy is the one to beat. Vera Baird is picking up support on Northumbria. In North Yorkshire Ruth Potter has been selected. Jane Basham has been selected in Suffolk. This is merely a snapshot, but it shows candidates from diverse backgrounds, with deep roots in their communities and experience of representing people.
When you hear that thud on your doormat, please cast your votes. We need Labour campaigners who can turn the police commissioner elections into a referendum on Theresa May and her 20% cuts to our police. With county council elections next year, and Euro elections the year after, every vote for Labour will count.
Paul Richards is seeking the Labour nomination for police commissioner in Sussex.