With a month to go before the election of police and crime commissioners, c’llr magazine ran a special feature looking at the subject. Over the next few days we will run those articles on the blog, looking at the topic from the perspective of people standing and one high-profile initial entrant who decided not to go ahead. But first up Patrick Kelly reports on the differing views of the Home Office and the Electoral Commission about how the elections should be run.
The arrival of Police and Crime Commissioners for 41 of 43 police forces in England and Wales “will be the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetime.”
That’s the official government view – but its significance seems to be lost on many of those most heavily involved in the electoral process. One coalition partner, the Lib Dems, showed their enthusiasm by deciding not to stand official candidates, while both the major parties have been less than enthusiastic about reaching into their election coffers to pay for campaigning. Indeed, the Conservatives have left individual candidates to raise the £5,000 deposit to get their name on the ballot paper.
Nor has it helped that legislative delays meant that the PCC missed the May 2012 slot and the first batch of elections were postponed to the electorally and meteorologically gloomy month of November.
Guidelines for the running of the elections were also held up. Confusion about the rules of disqualification have led to one Labour prospective candidate withdrawing from the contest on the basis of a 40 year old juvenile conviction before putting his hat back in the ring. A judge has added to the uncertainty by claiming that magistrates could not run for the new office.
In its latest briefing, the Electoral Commission, which has noted pointedly that the Home Office is “new” to running elections, criticised the Government for delaying in specifying fees and charges for counting officers and for running the risk that ballot papers in Wales will only be published in English, in breach of local election rules.
This slap on the wrist follows a major spat between the Home Office and the Commission over the question of a free mailshot for candidates. The Commission let it be known that its advice to send a booklet with candidate information to electors was ignored by ministers, who preferred the much cheaper option of relying on voters accessing a website to get the lowdown on the candidates running in their area.
Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission said: “Clearly, engaging voters ahead of these elections will be crucial. We will make sure people have the information they need to cast their vote. But people don’t vote because they know how to, they vote because they care about what’s at stake. So it’s now down to the candidates to give people a reason to vote.”
Watson underlined that the Commission “don’t agree with the decisions taken by the Government about how to make people aware of these elections.”
The Home Office maintains that the £25-35 million cost of an election address was “not a justifiable expense,” and all candidates could reach the public through local media and social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
A spokesman for the Home Office added that the department would be spending £3 million on the candidate website, advertising and other methods of raising public awareness. “We are confident members of the public will be able to access all the information they need on PCC candidates before the elections on 15 November.”
Not everyone is convinced. The Electoral Reform Society has been extremely unhappy with preparations for the PCC election and is predicting that turnout could be as low as 18 per cent. It has also claimed that independent candidates, without the benefit of a party organisation to get their name across, are being discriminated against. Some observers have suggested that the Electoral Commission is concerned about legal challenges after the poll, if voting numbers are close.
The Commission has made no comment on that but has expressed some concerns that a new election, with new electoral areas, a new voting system (the Supplementary Vote – hitherto only used in mayoral elections) and many area returning officers new to the role, mean the risk factors are much greater than in most elections.
It has warned that it would be keeping a close eye on how the election turns out. “We also have a responsibility to monitor and report to Parliament on how the elections were run,” said the commission’s chief executive, Peter Wardle. “As part of our assessment, we will look at what impact this new approach to providing candidate information had.”
These elections may well be significant in a way the government had not intended.
This article first appeared in c’llr magazine, October 2012