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.

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11 comments

New from me > A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/Y2Xp6PWw

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2012 at 8:39 pm. Reply #

New from me > A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/5Nl89spn

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2012 at 11:40 pm. Reply #

New from me > A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/5Nl89spn

by Lev Eakins on October 22, 2012 at 11:45 pm. Reply #

RT @stephentall New from me > A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/su0EIkkG

by HouseofTwitsLib on October 22, 2012 at 11:50 pm. Reply #

Where @stephentall tries to superglue the label "democracy" to something that is anything but. http://t.co/ayheF7B4

by Lee Griffin on October 23, 2012 at 12:10 am. Reply #

A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/VI2rbB0t

by BexhillBattleLibDems on October 23, 2012 at 12:41 am. Reply #

“the elitist liberal fearful of too much democracy.”

Hmm, if only it were that simple. In this case it is surely the pragmatic fear of TOO LITTLE democracy? We’re taking a system, with it’s own issues of legitimacy, primarily due to a complete lack of transparency in what local government does (which Lib Dems should be spearheading in improving), but ultimately which drew local knowledge from multiple areas to decide collectively what the priorities for crime spending would be…. and we’re replacing it with a single person, who’s job to be representative of all of those areas is much harder, almost impossibly so, and within a democratic framework that doesn’t actually encourage broad representative candidates rather than those focused on key (populist) issues amongst a sub-set of voters that are more likely to vote to help secure funding for their area.

“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.”

Such an awful argument. “HERE, there’s two bags with poisonous snakes in, and a bag with a rabbit…you don’t get to see inside, now vote to choose which bag we’ll open!” YAY! DEMOCRACY!

General and local elections work as well as they can under our FPTP system of democracy because you have a general idea about what the differential is. You know one party will probably help out those who need benefits, while the other will punish them…that one will want to control our lives while the other will want to give us freedom. What’s the differential with police and crime commissioners?

All of them want to improve policing, to bring crime down…how? Well no-one in the public knows how, the same we don’t really know how the economy works when you get down to it. But at least with the economy you can vote for a party that you know will be cutting spending vs one that’ll be raising taxes. All these candidates want the same thing…it’s a raffle, not democracy.

“Such concerns will, I believe, be outweighed by the vast scrutiny and direct, personal accountability that will come with these powers.”

Ah yes, that worked well with the London mayor election as I recall. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-17475294)

“However, elected police commissioners who want to be re-elected will need to show that their approach works”

Or just do a Boris and lie that it’s worked, as long as the areas that vote for them are placated. And remember this system is still the flawed AMS system that means essentially this will become not about which person is right for the job, but which party people align with. In a largely Tory/Labour or even Lib Dem area those people will be re-elected, and little, if anything, will stop that.

Democracy. This isn’t it.

by Lee Griffin on October 23, 2012 at 1:09 am. Reply #

New from me > A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/CGJ9LhSK

by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2012 at 2:40 am. Reply #

RT @stephentall New from me > A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/JOckV73a

by HouseofTwitsLib on October 23, 2012 at 2:50 am. Reply #

New from me > A confession: I’m a Lib Dem and I support elected police commissioners http://t.co/CGJ9LhSK

by Benjamin Redsell on October 23, 2012 at 3:24 am. Reply #

Where @stephentall tries to superglue the label "democracy" to something that is anything but. http://t.co/ayheF7B4

by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2012 at 6:26 am. Reply #

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