PCC elections analysis: Reasons to be cheerful?

By Tom Gash

The PCC election results are in but the post-mortem was underway well before. Is there anything in this policy to feel upbeat about?”

In the run-up to PCC elections, the government was criticised for not doing enough to publicise them and for virtually guaranteeing a low turnout by holding ballots in November. It was accused of failing to support the independent candidates they said they wanted to have a fighting chance. And it was found guilty of maladministration, epitomised by the £350,000 spent printing Welsh ballot papers in English rather than both English and Welsh. The government parties and Labour were all, meanwhile, questioned about their approach to the elections and particularly about whether enough had been done to ensure a high quality and diverse new set of elected officials.

Now the elections have taken place, many of these concerns have proved more than justified. The main story has been the extraordinarily low turnout, the worst ever in national elections at around 15%. Places like Avon and Somerset and Humberside topped the turnout charts with an unimpressive 19% while Staffordshire mustered just 12%. In contrast, the hotly disputed Corby by-election achieved a turnout of 45%.

Of course, PCC elections were not the only elections where voter apathy shone through. The by-election in the safe Labour seat of central Manchester only secured a turnout of 18%, for example. But it is hard not to conclude that the public were peculiarly unaware of and disinterested in the PCC ballot. The turnout for Greater Manchester's PCC poll was still four percentage points lower than for its by-election. Clearly the government either did too little to inform the electorate or single-issue elections of this kind simply don't provide voters with the kinds of meaningful choices that inspire them to brave a crisp November evening. The matter cannot be brushed aside and is now the subject of an official review by the Electoral Commission.

Diversity was not the strongpoint of the PCC ballot either – hardly a surprise when none of the parties took the steps they usually do for ensuring a modicum of diversity in the pool of MPs. Staggeringly, we have just elected the least gender and ethnically diverse set of politicians in England and Wales. Just 12% are women and none are from black or minority ethnic groups. Police authorities were at least as diverse as local councillors (31% female, four per cent BME) but the new cast of PCCs can't even match the diversity of the House of Commons. More than 20% of MPs are female and around four per cent BME.

Candidates did come from a range of backgrounds, of course, but they still broadly comprised three types: a very high number of former councillors (often working on the very bodies scrapped to create PCCs) retired MPs, and ex-police officers, military or legal professionals. It is far from clear too that candidates were elected simply on their merits rather than the political fortunes of the mainstream political parties. Overall these results saw a swing to Labour of a similar proportion to those seen in national opinion polls. This is worrying because unless PCCs are judged largely on their credentials and local performance in future, the policy will have been significantly undermined.

So far, so bad. But there was a major short term 'win' for the government on Thursday – albeit one that significantly reduced the number of Conservative PCCs. Twelve PCCs are now independents, who hold office without an official party affiliation. The practical help of party machines was expected to trump the independents' rallying cry of 'keeping politics out of policing' but it did not. The choice of the supplementary vote system clearly helped here, as independents often won the overwhelming proportion of second preferences – a fact that proved decisive in many tight-fought contests.

Despite the criticism over the lack of support for independents, securing them in post is already being presented as a success for the government, while failures are being downplayed as 'inevitable' given the novelty of the scheme. This is all very well, but the next general election will be over long before the public next have a chance to prove they really are interested in the appointments – in 2016.

The judgement of success in 2015 will therefore be determined by how government implements PCCs – and, of course, the immediate actions of 41 newly elected officials.

Tom Gash is programme director at the Institute for Government and author of: Who Chose the Sheriff: Finding quality candidates for police and crime commissioner elections, published by the Institute for Government

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