Published 5 May 2016
The election of a majority Conservative Government a year ago took the future of PCCs off the agenda, but a repeat of the figures from Nov 2012 (15% average, dipping to 12% in some parts) could, if not call into question successful candidates’ mandates, give pause for thought about Home Office and Ministry of Justice plans to give the role additional responsibilities, for example youth justice. Some in Government may be concerned more about how many people vote than who they actually vote for.
In 2012, around one in three successful candidates were independent, often running on a promise to ‘keep politics out of policing’. Given the most controversial clashes with chief constables have involved independent not party PCCs, will that message resonate a second time? Labour has dropped its pledge to scrap PCCs giving its candidates a firmer footing on which to fight their campaigns and with council elections on the same day, once in the voting booth, party loyalty, such as it is these days, could kick in and see some independents kicked out.
Despite Plaid Cymru’s ongoing commitment to scrap PCCs, it is fielding candidates for the first time and, with second preference votes carrying real weight under the Supplementary Vote System (click here if you really do want to know more about how it works), the nationalists could win, for example in Dyfed-Powys or North Wales, and become the first smaller party to have PCCs. Labour has declared the Home Office should devolve its remaining policing powers to the Welsh Assembly but is tipped by many to lose its majority there. If Labour turned to Plaid, a coalition partner from 2007-2011, for support, then advancing this policy – common ground with the nationalists – may be part of the deal, meaning Wales would have a government committed to wresting control of policing from Whitehall to Cardiff Bay.
This excellent blog by Rick Muir from the Police Foundation highlighted the chronic lack of female and BME candidates. It is as unlikely as it is worrying that any of those elected will be from an ethnic minority background. Expect this non-representation to be raised increasingly in the future, particularly if PCCs – already grappling with issues such as stop and search – take on responsibility for other aspects of the criminal justice system where there may be BME over-representation.
5. Labour wins or losses
The meaning of the council election results for Labour, good or bad, and its embattled leader will be furiously debated. But PCC elections, and one result in particular, should not be overlooked in this. Labour’s Bedfordshire PCC Olly Martins is defending a 3,000 majority from the Tories and last year launched a punchy and high profile campaign to get fairer (in his view) funding from the Home Office arguing (not without evidence) that the resources it is allocated do not match up to the challenges his force faces, such as gun crime and extremism. If the Conservatives are able to topple Martins in this context it would speak volumes about the condition of Labour’s national brand. Other PCC ‘marginals’ up for grabs include Suffolk, Humberside, and Staffordshire, where Labour finished a close second to the Tories, in 2012, and Lancashire, where the roles were reversed.
And then the sting in tail...
It’s possible that within months of taking office, the next generation of PCCs will find themselves handed new responsibilities for activities their campaigns barely touched upon – youth justice, court administration, provision of support for witnesses as well as victims, even managing a devolved Crown Prosecution Service. And yet, at the same time as their in-trays begin to bulge, they may find their neighbours in local government eyeing up their desk, chair and parking space at force HQ, as the Treasury policy of City Regions and Metro Mayors gathers pace. If the West Midlands follows Greater Manchester’s example, the role of the PCC will be subsumed by an elected Mayor for the region. And it’s not just the big urban forces affected by this process of patchwork devolution. It’s unclear how long the role of PCC will logically survive in Lincolnshire, for example, given the Treasury has just agreed a deal with the combined authority which may ultimately see a directly elected mayor take responsibility for prison and court services across the county.
It is an inconvenient truth, especially for the winning PCC candidates, that long after all of today’s votes have been counted, the question ‘Who is responsible for local criminal justice?’ will not have been settled.