A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2012

Here’s the thing: I don’t have a problem with elected police commissioners. I know they were a Tory manifesto idea and that the Lib Dems are opposed to them (while reluctantly agreeing to vote for them as part of the Coalition Agreement). But I’m just fine with them. My support for directly elected police commissioners is paralleled by my support for directly elected mayors:

For too long, city council politics have been in the hands of amateur part-time leaders: some have been very good, some not so good. But all have been ham-strung by a political system that grants them responsibility without power, allows them to be in office but not in government.

I understand and respect those who oppose the idea and the principle of commissioners, those who cleave to the collectivity of committees known as local police authorities. But it’s an argument that all too often spills over into that least attractive mindset: the elitist liberal fearful of too much democracy.

Many liberals are openly fearful of a right-wing hang-em-and-flog-em nut-job winning power. I get the concern. Come to that, I’m pretty appalled by the idea of Lord Prescott’s return to public life in Humberside. But you know what? That’s democracy for you. Campaign in favour of what you want and against what you don’t want. Despair of the electorate’s judgement. But respect the voters’ right to make the wrong decision.

There are legitimate concerns that vesting a commissioner’s power in just one person might lead to corruption or limit debate. Such concerns will, I believe, be outweighed by the vast scrutiny and direct, personal accountability that will come with these powers. You can bet their every move will be watched with greater care than is currently focused on the authorities they’re replacing. Certainly I hope the new system will put a stop to the tendency for committees to be captured by chief constables, for there to be a greater equality in the power dynamic at the top of the force between the professionals and the people’s representatives.

There is one argument with which I have no truck: the mealy-mouthed complaint that elected police commissioners will ‘politicise’ the police. What is policing if not political? Was ‘kettling’ peaceful G20 protesters a non-political act? Was the Hillsborough cover-up something politicians should have ignored?

Besides, if policing should truly be non-political, why do those who oppose the new system stick up for local police authorities which have a majority of elected councillors? I have the suspicion that the worry of ‘politicisation’ is really code for ‘we’d prefer the public not to be too involved in how they’re policed’.

I remain hopeful that elected police commissioners will, probably not to begin with but in time, lead to better policing. Why do I believe that? Because I’m a democrat who believes that greater transparency and clearer accountability improves decision-making.

For too long, the liberal approach to crime — to have a tough but fair system which makes offenders face up to the consequences of their crimes, punishes them proportionately, and aims for their full rehabilitation into society — has been easily, cheaply derided by our opponents as ‘soft on crime’ when it is anything but. As The Economist found on a recent visit to Jersey, an island which already has elected police chiefs and isn’t usually regarded as a bastion of liberalism:

There is a great emphasis on keeping offenders, especially young offenders, out of the criminal justice system, and avoiding anything that looks like public humiliation. Young tearaways and petty offenders will be sent to perform community service, but there is no question of putting them in bright yellow waistcoats emblazoned with the word “offender”. All Parish Hall Enquiries are confidential. Islanders use the word “paternalist”, a lot, to describe their approach to justice. Those who offend repeatedly will face tough justice in the end, the home affairs minister, Senator Ian Le Marquand, told me: “but we like to take our time getting there.” So is justice tough or soft on Jersey? Locals call the distinction rather empty. What counts to them is trying to get justice right.

Will that approach find echoes across the country after 15th November? I may be a liberal, but I’m not that much of an optimist.

However, elected police commissioners who want to be re-elected will need to show that their approach works, that they can actually cut crime, working with the police, working with the communities. I have enough confidence in a liberal, evidence-based, humane approach to justice to believe that even those elected police commissioners who preach lock-em-up-fire-and-brimstone will repent when they realise that prevention and rehabilitation are the best ways to crack crime.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.