A simple show of hands, both at the start and the end, of the recent Nottinghamshire Police and Crime Commissioner debate on campus suggested a clear winner in former Police Sergeant Malcolm Spencer. The method might have been unscientific, but the implication of characteristics the audience desired from those vying for the position is telling.
Spencer impressed not only because he was able to persuade the students in the room that he had the right experience – it seems obvious that the role should be filled by a candidate with a policing background – but perhaps more significantly, as an independent, he was able to play the anti-politics card.
Herein lies the fundamental problem with the concept of electing a Police and Crime Commissioner. Since the days of Robert Peel, British police have installed authority by consent. But how can consent exist between the police and the wider public when most likely at the top of the hierarchy there will be a political figure?
Such a situation may be avoided if Malcolm Spencer can persuade enough of Nottinghamshire he is the right man for the job. But doing so will be difficult; a significant majority are unlikely to hear from the candidates in person, and will likely vote along party lines. Paddy Tipping, a former Labour MP, therefore remains the clear favourite in a city which overwhelmingly votes red.
A party political victory will surely have a negative effect on the authority which the police can wield across the county. Mixing policing with politics is a recipe for disaster. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the recent ‘Gategate’ scandal. Without a doubt, David Cameron should have had the courage to immediately strip away from Andrew Mitchell his role as Chief Whip. But the use of the scandal by the Police Federation to bolster their political interests was equally abhorrent.
Why the government felt the need to consult the people, through a referendum in May earlier this year, on the proposition of an elected Mayor but not the Police Commissioner is puzzling. Of course, the fundamental aim of the policy, for the police service to be more accountable, is no bad thing. But does true accountability exist when one, the turnout for the election is likely to be embarrassingly low, and two, where there appears to be little to separate the candidates in terms of policy.
The most divisive issue at the ‘Question Time’ style event on Tuesday was the extent to which central government should be cutting police budgets. An issue which, despite Tipping’s frustration, the Police and Crime Commissioners will have little control over. Elsewhere, mild disagreement reared its head on the value of CCTV, but, in the main, consensus existed on the need for more police on the streets, less bureaucracy and the imposition of a nightlife levy on pubs and clubs in the city centre to cover for extra policing costs.
The elections will, in theory, allow the people of Nottinghamshire to influence the direction of policing in the county, but the legitimacy of the result will be questionable if the electors are limited to a small group of political obsessives and a minority of those switched-on enough to care. Nottingham City Council is therefore rightly encouraging people to vote through a city-wide poster campaign suggesting that on election day ‘Criminals will hope you do nothing’. Nonetheless, I doubt the average Lenton burglar will lose any sleep over whether or not you decide to take the trip to the polling station on November 15th.