Across England and Wales last Saturday, small groups of volunteers were working to help candidates in the first election for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), which will take place on 15 November. I was in Cambridge for a couple of hours, helping Sir Graham Bright in his bid to become PCC for "Cambridgeshire and Peterborough", so covering the City of Ely, where I was born and raised.
Asking around amongst my friends on Monday morning, I was struck by how few people seem to be aware of the elections, and even less of the candidates, in their areas. Turnout everywhere is expected to be low, so much so that at this point 20% might be considered a good result. Regular listeners to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 would be aware of issues that have made it difficult for independent candidates to stand, such as relatively high deposits (£5,000 versus the £500 for a parliamentary election), but would probably be ignorant of what PCC's will actually be able to do, or why anyone thinks we need them. Like so much of the media, Today has covered perceived problems with the principles of the PCC elections, rather than the issues that those elected might be expected to deal with.
There will be no such vote in London, where the Mayor already has oversight of the Metropolitan Police and it is possible that London-based journalists and news outlets have covered the story less than might have been the case had London been involved, but that can't account for the lack of excitement in most local media. It is true that many local papers have covered basic information on candidates through interviews or profiles, but there has been little debate about their plans or coverage in the editorial pages that would have more usefully served their readers.
The result is that most voters are fairly apathetic about the elections, many are ignorant about the role and a good number are factually wrong in what they believe will happen.
In Cambridge, a reasonable proportion of the people to whom I spoke were unhappy with what they saw as the politicisation of the police. They saw election of PCC's as an unwanted involvement of elected representatives in the way the police service is run. However, most were unaware that local politicians, usually councilors, already sit on Police Authorities, which currently oversee police activities. What is more, their concerns seemed to be more about whether PCC's would be able to interfere in police investigations rather than issues over priorities of local policing, support and other topics that the candidates are campaigning on.
I am not aware of any candidate in these elections, whether party-backed or independent, who has not pledged to fight for politics-free police investigations and support for front-line policing. But there are things that PCC's will be able to do that will effect the lives of ordinary people and those voters should be able to express their views at the ballot box having received more information.
In Cambridgeshire, there is a budget of almost £140m for the local police force and the elected PCC will have a strong say in the priorities for it. Sir Graham is looking to find ways to separate the oversight of the police from their day-to-day activities and intends to move the oversight function of the PCC out of the existing police headquarters building creating a clear division between the two. He also hopes to support local organisations that support victims of crime, such as rape crisis groups and crime prevention schemes, including the NFU's FarmWatch, which helps protect rural communities and is a major issue for much of Cambridgeshire beyond its three cities.
Other candidates have different spending and policing priorities that voters might prefer but it is hard for anyone to make an informed choice with so few views having been given a decent airing or subjected to much public or press scrutiny. I have met with similar comments when making telephone calls on behalf of candidates in Cumbria, Derbyshire and elsewhere across England.
Anyone seeking elected office needs to rely on the media to help spread word of their activities and policies. This is particularly true for independent candidates, who lack access to an active supporter base that are well used to running campaigns, distributing leaflets and contacting voters. That has not happened here and while it is understandable that some object to the very idea of electing PCC's that does not change the situation: there will be an election for them on Thursday and voters should have been better served in learning about the candidates and their policies.
If you want to know more about any candidate in the PCC elections, the Home Office websites has a complete list of candidates. http://www.choosemypcc.org.uk