Last week saw electors go to the polls to choose England and Wales’ first-ever police and crime commissioners. Five days on and with the new men and woman now in their roles, Baroness Randerson sees what early lessons can be learned
NOW that the dust has settled on last week’s PCC elections, here are some stray thoughts on the lessons we can really draw from them. The media narrative was all about low turnout and that was BEFORE election day. Repeated often enough it creates an environment in which “not voting” is a positive life style choice and is not the result of apathy, poor autumn weather or lack of awareness of what these elections were all about. However all these factors came into play last week. In fact, the weather was not bad for November – but it still got dark by late afternoon which spoiled the traditional early evening stroll to the polling station.
PCC elections were an experiment in more ways than one. It is undoubtedly true that most electors had very little idea what PCCs are to do but they understand what the police do, just as electors in council elections may not know what a councillor does but they do know that the council has responsibility for pavements and street lights and so on. Possible the biggest experiment was the “online only” nature of the information on candidates available to most electors. The low turnout probably proves that most of us are not eagerly surfing the net for information. We still rely overwhelmingly on information coming to us unsolicited. In other words electors may complain about the avalanche of paper that comes through the letterbox at election time but they still rely on it to tell them that an election is coming up and who the candidates are.
But there is another side to this “online only” information. It levelled the playing field in a way that the old-style Freepost cannot do, because Freepost is only free as far as the posting goes. Candidates still have to pay for the printing of the leaflets to be posted – something which costs thousands of pounds across the large areas covered by each police force. Indeed the main political parties have developed the art of Freepost, using the data they have on electors to send separate messages to individuals in the same household. And it matters that the leaflets look suitably glossy and professional .Electors tend to judge whether a candidate is in with a chance by the quality of their leaflet.
So where am I going with this? Well, independent candidates did rather well last week, winning proportionately far more seats than is usual in British elections, with the exception of parish and community councils. I very much doubt that they would have done as well if the main political parties had been able to use Freepost in the usual way. Basically it was a very cost-effective election to fight where access to generous finance did not play the usual part. The inquest into last week’s low turnout needs to bear that in mind and to remember that there is a third way, which is to provide the kind of booklet produced for the mayoral/GLA elections in London. All the candidates are featured equally, with details they have supplied.
Independents also clearly benefited from the anti-politics mood abroad in the country at the moment. The Labour Party seems to have suffered as much from this as the parties of the Coalition Government . This election was Labour’s big chance to persuade electors to “send a message to the Government” but Lord Prescott was not the only Labour candidate to look miserable on Friday afternoon. In their heartland in Wales, Labour confidently expected to pick up all four PCCs: in fact they have only one, in South Wales. The Tories won Dyfed-Powys and independents won in North Wales and Gwent. So it is a pity that the pre-election debate seemed to spend so little time on what PCCs will actually do because I believe we are in for some real changes.
Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.