Don’t listen to the siren voices of abstention

November 6, 2012 12:55 pm

The Guardian’s John Harris is a chap with strange politics. He purports to be a man of the left but spent the General Election campaign producing execrable love letters to Nick Clegg, like this one which declared that:

“A Lib Dem deal is Labour’s only hope – I see no chance of a yellow-blue alliance. Labour must take the opportunity of joining up with the Liberal Democrats.”

You would think this sort of huge-scale failure of political judgement would lose you any credibility as a political commentator, but no,
he’s at it again, with a piece yesterday inciting people to abstain or spoil their ballot papers in the Police Commissioner elections.

This sort of stuff isn’t just annoying; its pernicious because he is given a mass media platform by what ought to be a serious newspaper.

Here’s why you should ignore John Harris and vote Labour if you are in an area with a Police Commissioner election:

  •  The turnout is already going to be very low because the elections are being held at a ridiculous time of the year when it is cold and gets dark early. The lower the turnout, the more influence on the outcome for the votes cast by people who do bother.
  • Whilst we didn’t want these expensive, unnecessary posts, dreamed up by the Tories, created, now that they exist we need to win them as they have serious powers around setting police priorities and even “appointing, and where necessary dismissing, the chief constable.” Why would anyone not want to have a say in picking someone who can hire and fire your area’s chief constable? As Plato said, “The punishment of the wise who refuse to participate in politics is to be ruled by more foolish men.”
  • Harris attacks Labour for not sending him a leaflet, but this isn’t the party’s fault – the Government chose not to fund a freepost delivery as is the norm in General, Mayoral and European Elections. A normal reaction from a “leftwing activist” like Harris would be to offer to his local Labour Party to deliver some leaflets himself.
  • Harris is dismissive of the former MPs running as Labour candidates. I actually think it is great that people of the stature and experience of ex-Ministers want to run for these posts – plus they were all picked democratically by local Labour members.
  • He takes a gratuitous side-sweep at Tal Michael, Labour’s candidate in marginal North Wales, on the basis that he is Alun Michael’s son. I know Tal from his time as a Labour Students activist, as Labour Group Chair and Chair of the Community Safety Committee on Islington Council, and then as Assistant Chief Executive of Hackney Council. While John Harris was writing record reviews, Tal Michael was helping transform public services in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. He is probably one of the most qualified candidates runningfor PCC, having courageously given up his job as Chief Executive of the North Wales Police Authority to do so.
  • He airily dismisses the truly terrifying prospect of rightwing extremists like the EDL or English Democrats winning Police Commissioner posts as a “halfway convincing argument for voting”. But we know the English Democrats can win low turnout elections because they won the mayoralty in Doncaster. We can’t afford to let them get their hands on key roles around law and order.
  • This election will be seen by the media as a mid-term referendum on the Coalition Government. Both the results and the turnout will be seen as measures of public anger (or apathy) about the Government’s austerity strategy. Even if you don’t care about the Police Commissioner role you should turn out and vote to register a protest against the Government. If there were elections for town dog-catcher I’d turn-out and vote so that the Labour guy won them rather than a Tory or Lib Dem.

There’s an even better reason to vote Labour though – to stick two fingers up to John Harris, his miserable view of the world, and his
persistent efforts to undermine the Labour Party. We know from his article on 26 April 2010 that he patronisingly and contemptuously
thinks people who constantly and only vote Labour are “knuckle-head tribalists”. I’d rather be a “knuckle-head tribalist” for Labour any
day than the kind of “intellectual” whose flirting with the Lib Dems put the Tories back in power, and whose advocacy of a spoilt ballot
might lead to the election of a Tory or far right Police Commissioner.

  • AlanGiles

    Mr. Akehurst, like most right-wing Labour supporters these days, hurrumphs at the Guardian almost as much as retired Majors and their ladies do in Tunbridge Wells.
    John Harris got it wrong, it would not have been possible to have a Labour/LibDem coalition because the numbers didn’t add up – even a rainbow coalition of all small parties couldn’t have produced a majority, even if they were all disposed towards such a coalition to keep Labour in power – as likely as our Luke selling the Socialist Worker on the street corner.
    But if we was to make fun of every political writer commentator and reporter who got anything wrong, I doubt there is one of them that would not get laughed at.
    For the record I will not be voting in the 15th November election; i really do not think party politics should play any part in the police service, and in a few cases, known expenses cheats have obtained the nomination – what hypocrisy that is.

  • Dave Postles

    I will not vote for something which I do not want; voting for it would legitimize it.  We have a solid tradition of Watch Committees and tripartite Standing Joint Committees.   I do not want kitchen cabinets of PCCs meddling and interfering.  Please show that there is no desire for this atrocity from across the water.  The mere fact that almost half the US electorate is prepared to listen to the mendacity of such as Bush, Palin and Romney should alert us to the undesirability of US institutions.  Will it be the electoral college next?

    • Dave_Costa

      Your first sentence is exactly what I said with regard to the Euro Election in 1979 – when all good left-wingers hated the Common Market. I was wrong then and it took us three more rounds of Euro Elections to help build the momentum required to drive the Tories out. All elections are linked. If we do poorly in this election, our hard-won momentum will be broken and we’ll be back to stories about Ed’s “failure” as our leader. If we tell our supporters we don’t care whether or not they vote, why should they bother to vote in the elections we do care about? The time to argue for abstention was before the NEC decided we should fight these elections. It’s too late for that now so we need to get behind our party’s candidates.
      Incidentally I can remember when the left railed against the scandal of the unelected members of police authorities – particularly the two thirds who were not even elected councillors- and demanded direct elections. We may not have got what we wanted – but I’m not sure the system up until now was much to celebrate. 

  • Cllr Jon Harvey

    If someone really wanted to wreck these elections they would organise an online campaign to get the least competent / most inexperienced person elected in each area – as indeed happened to the PCC in my (fictional but told by many – scarily close to the likely truth) secret diary:

    But of course, we must turn out the Labour vote. Here in Thames Valley, the Tory is so complacent he has even organised a car and chauffeur for himself in advance! We could catch him and many of our opponents on the hop if we got out the solid Labour vote.

    Whether we like it or not by the end of 16/11, 41 new PCCs will be elected. I hope as many of them as possible are Labour.


  • ColinAdkins

    I with all Alan Giles on this one except in one key respect. I voted for Tal Michael because I don’t want the Tories to win anything not even a raffle at a school fete. Having read Luke’s piece I read Harris’s article as I buy the Guardian. Normally I skip his musings and I am surprised Luke did not do so also this time.

    I must admit I share his concern about kith and kin getting elected positions via the Party. Who next Will Straw or Ewan Blair? Remember the disgraceful attempt by the party establishment to get Gould’s daughter that seat before the last election.  Let alone the current husband and wife or sister acts in the shadow cabinet or Harperson suspending her support for more women in Parliament when it came to her husband seeking a seat. Or Benn giving up the hereditrary title for ‘hereditrary’ succession in Parliament. Or Kinnocks who should recast ‘Kinnock the movie’ to point out how well they have all done courtesy of the Party. 

    In the old Soviet Union they called this the nomenklatura.

    As for Prescott what would have been his reaction when as a militant trade unionist he saw someone hanging on for dear life to public position? Dear John you have had a fair old innings, thank you, now clear off and give someone else an opportunity. Although if I was in your ‘constituency’ I would still vote for you if you were the candidate!

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  • AndyT-S

    I have to agree with Harris, and for the first time I will forgo suffrage. I don’t do this lightly or with joy, but to vote would be for me to sanction the dangerous idea that a role as important as a PCC can be successfully delivered by a politician (of whatever persuasion).

  • Brumanuensis

    I found Harris’s attacks on ‘tribalism’ annoying too, but this article is a fairly pointless diatribe and disappointing coming from you, Luke. Like Harris, I’m strongly considering abstaining on the 15th, not because I don’t think Bob Jones would make a good PCC, but because I’m not sure how I can reconcile opposing the post whilst voting for a candidate in the election. This was pointed out to me by a Lib Dem friend recently – he’s voting independent – and it’s stuck in my mind. On the other hand, I’ve always strongly believed that voting is a civic duty and that makes me feel guilty about abstaining. I suspect I’ll end up voting come election day, but I completely understand where John Harris is coming from.

    • AlanGiles

      I honestly believe that if you really disapprove or disagree with something it is best not to force yourself, so if you do abstain Brum, don’t feel guilty. I won’t. Didn’t Samuel Butler have it? “I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do: I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried, but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them  at once and no trying at all”

  • aracataca

    I had thought of John Harris as a serious thinker of the left and he was one of the people who impressed me at party conference when I attended a few years back. However, anyone who ushered Labour voters into the arms of that arch deceiver Nick Clegg at the last election must have serious flaws in his political instinct. His piece advocating abstention in the forthcoming vote provides further evidence (imho) that Harris’ political musings are  confused, opportunistic and manifestly misguided on occasions. Ignore him and vote Labour on November 15th.

  • Ric Euteneuer

    I don’t agree with Unitary Councils, and I voted against a directly elected London Mayor, but that hasn’t stopped me voting in both elections. I think PCCs are ridiculous but I’d rather have an enlightened Labour Party member like Sherman Batson as a PCC than some rancid Tory – as PCC’s will have quite a lot of power too. 

  • Mike Homfray


    I would be more convinced if Labour said here and now that these are one term posts, and will be replaced when we are reelected.

    I think the establishment of these posts is a huge mistake and am also leaning towards abstention via positively spoiling my ballot paper

    • MonkeyBot5000

      Spoiling your ballot does nothing except increase the voter turnout and hence add more legitimacy to the election.

      Haven’t you got an independent you can vote for?

  • Newham Sue

    Much as I dislike the concept of police commissioners, think the looming prospects of privatisation of police services and down-grading of some areas of crime interest make this too important a power to allow to fall into the hands of the Tories. Pragmatism wins, sadly.

  • HamishSandison

    Spot on Luke!   Your piece should be compulsory reading for Tom Watson and other Shadow Cabinet members who need to make a positive case for voting on November 15th.  Hamish Sandison, Labour PCC Candidate for Gwent.     


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