The police and crime commissioner elections held last week were, it is fair to say, a disaster. With nine out of 10 voters not bothering to vote at all the question has to be asked whether this was because of the politicisation of policing or because voters simply didn't know or understand what the election was about.
The electoral reform society branded the government's handling as a "comedy of errors" and the electoral commission announced they were going to hold an investigation into why so few people voted. It was the worst turnout for a national election in British history and at one polling station in Newport not one person turned up to vote. The lowest turnout was in Staffordshire where the turnout was 11.6% and the highest turnout was in Northamptonshire where turnout was 20%.
The biggest shock of this election besides the horrendously low turnout was the defeat of John Prescott in Humberside. It was a final blow and marked the end of his political career. The main two parties didn't do too badly with the Conservatives picking up 16 seats and Labour picking up 13 seats. But it is perhaps the fact that 12 Independent PCCs were elected that has made this election different. The low turnout will certainly have helped them but also the fact that the policy is effectively politicising policing will have made people look to independents and those with police or similar experience.
Whilst I have opposed PCCs from the start I did vote in this election for the reason that I would rather influence the vote and have a PCC that will work for the public and protect frontline policing rather than one that would butcher the service and do a poor job at scrutinising the force. What is clear is that PCCs must tread carefully and not interfere with key operational decisions that are taken by the chief constable. A PCC should work with the chief constable not against him/her to ensure that the force can protect response times, fight crime, protect the public and protect the vital relationships between the police and the community. There are some decent police and crime commissioners that have been elected and they have the relevant police/military/community experience. I just hope that for the sake of the public and the police that the role can work.
There are a number of obvious reasons why turnout was so low in this election and they include the point that the election was so poorly advertised. I received nothing through the post and I received no leaflets from any of the candidates. Had I not had internet access or indeed if I wasn't up to date with policing and government policy then I wouldn't have had a clue what the purpose of this election was. And that's the problem, people received their polling cards at the end of October and saw that there were elections for police and crime commissioner but they didn't know what it was about. Even the TV and radio adverts were too late, instead the Home Office should have been pushing this election in the national press and ensured it received as much attention as a general election.
Another factor which will have had an impact on the election is that the election was held in November; anybody that has worked on any sort of an election in the Autumn and Winter will know how incredibly difficult it is to get out the vote. Voters don't want to leave the house to go and vote on a cold wet day which is why the election should have been held in the Spring or Summer.
If in 2016 England and Wales still has police and crime commissioners the government of the day must learn lessons from PCC 2012. The ultimate aim of an election must be to increase participation and debate.
A mixture of politicisation, poor advertising and the timing is to blame for this disaster of an election. All of the police commissioners who have been elected are going to struggle to claim they have a mandate when the majority of people didn't vote. It's hard to blame the poor turnout on this being a first election and the government shouldn't be looking for excuses. They should admit responsibility and look at ways to improve the police service rather than trying to knock it down and rebuild it in their image.