The Police & Crime Commissioner elections of November 2012 were momentous for all the wrong reasons. Just 15% of the electorate turned out to vote – the lowest turnout for an election ever. Should we believe David Cameron when he tells us that this was because we, the electorate, did not understand the new role?
In the run up to the election, the Electoral Commission – the independent body that sets standards for well-run elections – did two things. They sent every household in the country a booklet explaining what the Police & Crime Commissioner role was about, and they released a statement criticising the Government for ignoring its recommendation that every household receive a booklet telling them about the Police & Crime Commissioner candidates standing in their area. Candidate information was instead posted on a website (noting that 20% of households do not have the internet) , and the Home Office ran a television ad campaign to publicise the Police & Crime Commissioner role which was condemned for demonising young people.
Post-election research by the Electorial Commission shared in response to a Freedom of Information request found that 60% of people “did not have enough information to understand the role of the Police & Crime Commissioner”, which would support David Cameron’s line. But then the Electorial Commission found that 71% of people “did not have enough information on candidates to be able to make an informed decision”.
As an illustration of this, here’s what voters in South Leeds received before the election: one leaflet through their letterbox for the Labour Party candidate, Mark Burns-Williamson… that’s it.
This issue is not new. I contacted Hilary Benn MP in 2009 saying that the lack of information for voters must have been a factor in the success of the BNP in local elections. His response focussed on the difficulties of pulling together campaign booklets, but as any Civil Servant will tell you, “difficulty” is never an issue when politicians want something done. Fast forward to 2013 and the Electoral Commission are about to make the same point again in a report to parliament on the low turnout at the Police & Crime Commissioner elections.
Hilary Benn MP told me that he has “known Mark for a few years and will, in my opinion, do a good job for us in West Yorkshire”. I value Mr Benn’s opinion – and as Mark Burns-Williamson has been a long-time Labour Party politician he will have had the opportunity to get to know him well – but I would like to form my own opinion and share it through the ballot box. To form opinions, we need information. Did Mark Burns-Williamson’s election eaflet give voters sufficient information?
- The majority of the leaflet (65%) was used to tell us that Mark Burns-Williamson is the Labour Party candidate and that the Coalition are cutting public services; the role of Police & Crime Commissioner is not supposed to be a party political one.
- Just 15% of the leaflet was used to tell us about Mark Burns-Williamson’s policies. But these included old ‘New Labour’ phrases like “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” which don’t explain anything. As the Police & Crime Commissioner does not have responsibility for the economy, tackling social inequality, education and drug policy, it is unclear how he would tackle the causes of crime.
- And nowhere on the leaflet did it say that Mark Burns-Williamson would raise the council tax to plug a hole in West Yorkshire Police’s budgets. After the Home Secretary rejected his requests for extra funding from central government, he is now using the fine print of the Police & Crime Commissioner mandate to enact a rise in council tax which he claims is supported by the public. If the public are in support then why wasn’t it on the election leaflet?
The Electoral Commission confirmed to me that they are not planning to look at how Police & Crime Commissioners came to be official political party candidates. But with the main parties putting forward and funding the vast majority of candidates it is critical to understand what happened in the stages before the public was presented with its choices. A huge part of the election process took place away from the public.
The Labour Party confirmed to me that there were other people interested in becoming the official Labour Party candidate for West Yorkshire Police & Crime Commissioner, but they wouldn’t tell me who they were or their backgrounds.
They told me that the Labour Party National Executive Committee short-listed candidates and conducted regional interviews, but they wouldn’t tell me who actually made the decisions and on what grounds.
They were keen to point out that they were the only party to allow all their members to vote on who should be chosen (I have not verified this with the other parties) and wanted to stress their process was not secret – although they still haven’t responded fully to the request for information I sent 3 months ago.
And the Labour Party didn’t provide an explanation of how the relationship would work in practice between the Labour Party contract Mark Burns-Williamson signed to “respect the independence of the police” (as mentioned on the campaign flyer) and the Police & Crime Commissioner “oath of impartiality” that all Police & Crime Commissioners have signed to serve the community. So it’s not clear what would happen if Labour won the next election and adopted a policy of cuts to police budgets (which the economic forecast suggests is very likely). Would the “oath of impartiality” come first, in which case Mark Burns-Williamson would fight cuts to his West Yorkshire Police budget tooth and nail, or would his allegiance to the Labour Party come first?
Voter turnout has been declining for decades and politicians have done nothing to stop the trend, which begs the question, why? One reason could be that low voter interest saves a lot of party money and effort. If 85% of the electorate feel too disenfranchised to vote then you only need to spend resources trying to convince the other 15% to vote for you. And parties know where the swing voters are, so in reality there is only a fraction of these people whose votes really need to be fought for.
But while manufacturing voter apathy might have short term gains for political parties, the longer term dangers are immense. Lowering people’s stake in society has a knock-on effect to social, economic and environmental engagement. It removes the sense of a common interest. It further erodes the broken connection between national and local politics and the public. People will seek other means to make their voice heard. The political parties may like voter apathy now, but would they be able to reverse it quickly enough to stop the far right rising to power?
Politicians take note: Manufacturing apathy may suit you in the short term, but you ignore the long-term side effects at your peril.
Note: the role campaign funding played in the election will be known when the Electoral Commission publish this data in the near future.