The recent elections of police commissioners in the UK, or more specifically in England and Wales, are a brilliant example of democratic stupidity. Whilst it's a particularly silly example of strange ideas not corresponding to reality, it also highlights a point that many people seem to miss. That 'more democracy' is not necessarily a good thing.
The elections were sprung upon a surprised and generally indifferent British public who either didn't know, or didn't care they were happening. They were severely under-marketed and under-explained but it's doubtful that that's why many people didn't show any interest.
I presently live in Scotland, but I had I been back in my hometown of Lincoln I probably wouldn't have voted in the election won by Alan Hardwick. Apparently a TV presenter. I'd never heard of him. But even if I'd gotten past my scarce recognition that the election was going on, and then gotten past my lack of recognition for any of the candidates, and then gotten past the fact that all of their manifestos seemed to consist of rhetoric and conjecture, there'd be one more barrier which would probably stop me voting.
I don't know anything about policing.
Probably less than nothing. My knowledge of policing is based on watching A Touch of Frost, Inspector Morse, and a lot of The Bill about 10 years ago. Most of time I've seen policemen has been whilst I've been at least partially inebriated breaking up some mindless violent incident across the road on a night out. I once got stopped by a policeman for riding my bike in the dark with no lights when I was 16. I also visited a police headquarters once and got tasered voluntarily. It was shocking. Sorry.
That about sums up my knowledge of policing. Now, for my interest in policing.
That about sums up my interest in policing. I don't think that that is atypical of most people.
I don't feel comfortable electing someone to be in charge of a specific profession that I don't know anything about. I wouldn't feel comfortable electing a chief medical officer for a region; because I don't the first thing about medicine or public health policy, and in spite of the fact that my mother has worked for the NHS for almost my entire life my knowledge of hospitals can be summed up with 'they're really clean'. I wouldn't feel comfortable electing the head of the British Army. Because my entire knowledge of war comes from Saving Private Ryan and Call of Duty, and one of my genuine desires in life is to never have to join the armed forces.
There's always the argument that 'normal people have concerns about policing'. But that's ridiculous. Concerns don't mean good decision-making, nor do simply having concerns entitle one to a place at the decision making table on a specific issue. I sometimes get concerned about paving slabs being a bit too jagged. I don't have a place on a civil engineering committee.
When the population elect a government, they elect representatives based upon the general ideas and direction of their policies. There's no need for them to support every specific policy in every specific area. That would be downright lunacy. When your political system is stable enough, it means that most of the time you generally agree with most of the policies of the major parties, because they're pretty similar. But effectively that's what you're deciding on; ideas, occasionally more specific policies like increasing government spending or cutting it, but generally that's how democracy.
Ideas aren't much use to the police force. Those in charge should have a genuine, through technical knowledge of the how the job works. Decided upon merit, not by some electorate with ideas. My ideas for the police force involve making me safer, reducing crime and looking pleasant in their day-to-day business. Surprising, that's what most of the manifestos for elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) included. Vague, worthless promises to 'run the force well', 'take a no-nonsense approach',' do everything they can to deal with problems', 'hit the ground running', or my personal favourite 'get the total system right'.
How surprising. An electorate that had no interest or knowledge of what they were voting for were given no help from the political establishment, or the establishment they were electing a leader for.
There's also the problem that when a barely legitimate 'elected' figure comes to be in charge of a heavily specialised technical organisation, friction emerges. It took one day for this to emerge with the resignation of Chief Constable Colin Port, who would not tolerate having to reapply for his job by Sue Mountstevens, the newly elected commissioner for Somerset & Avon.
You can see his point, he was someone who was good, by most reports (I have no idea myself - see above), at his job and was told by someone jumped up public official who got votes from less than 10% of the electorate (9.92% to be precise, and that's including her second preference votes) by pledging to be honest and boasting that she was free from political control. Her only tangible policy was to ask the government for more money.
This painfully asinine exercise in democracy reveals the problems with it. Whilst democracy is in general a good political system, sticking to it as a principle and extending it for only its own purpose is ridiculous. Shoving democracy where it's not needed is damaging both to the places where it is shoved, and to democracy itself, which ends up looking farcical and ineffective. People who know nothing about something shouldn't be making decisions on it. There's no point.
Follow Daniel M. Swain on Twitter: www.twitter.com/theswainviour