At the time of writing, the election process for police and crime commissioners looks like it has been even less successful than many feared. The turnout, estimated at around 15%, appears to be the lowest ever in a national election. Worse, the fortunes of PCC candidates seem largely to be mirroring the fortunes of the national parties, raising the possibility that future PCC elections might simply become another means of expressing views on national government rather than preferences for local crime and policing approaches.
As Policing Minister Damian Green copes with the unenviable task of defending the Government’s policy in light of this, 41 PCCs will turn their attention to making the new role work. PCCs and police chiefs could do worse than examine the lessons from past political transitions and tips on the first 100 days for PCCs and politicians more generally. There is no time to lose, after all, with just 10 weeks to go until PCCs must produce their first police and crime plan and set the police budget.
PCCs will no doubt focus on ensuring that they demonstrate to the electorate that they are making a swift impact. But a less talked about priority for PCCs must be the development of relationships across a complex public service landscape.
Reducing crime and maintaining law and order is not something police forces can do alone and PCCs must recognise that some of the greatest successes of local crime reduction of recent years have been have been achieved with the help of councils. Local authorities have blocked the alleyways that provided burglars with easy access to our homes, ensured night-time revellers have the transport they need to get home safely from town centres, and imposed licensing restrictions on rowdy pubs to great effect. Hospitals, meanwhile, have improved their record on providing information relating to crime incidents and virtual courts have been introduced by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, saving the police time and money.
Building the relationships that form the backdrop to such successes requires PCCs to take a broad view of their responsibilities. PCCs will only be able to get the cooperation of local partners if they demonstrate their willingness to work towards the greater good of their local area rather than pursuing narrow organisational interest. And PCCs will need to embrace hard work if they are to develop strong relationships. Most local agencies are undergoing structural reform and major expenditure reductions, both of which encourage organisations to take a strong internal focus. Pre-existing governance arrangements often lie in tatters – an obstacle to cooperation but also an opportunity to create less bureaucratic and more effective alternatives.
Yet the temptation for PCCs to neglect their role in building effective local relationships will be strong. The bulk of police funding is still provided by the Home Office so PCCs might opt simply to become a lobby group for more police spending – arguing that they are doing the best job for their electorate by securing more public money for the cause they represent. Similarly, PCCs might lobby for tougher sentences, particularly as they get the electoral gains of a punitive stance without having to take the political pain of slashing spending elsewhere to pay for the extra prison places. Both the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary should stand on red alert for that first letter to The Times from Labour PCCs (or even all PCCs) calling for a ‘tough stance’.
If PCCs can ensure that such national campaigning does not come at the expense of their other duties, today’s poor turnout and initially uninspiring candidates may be swiftly forgotten. If they do not, today’s results may simply become the prelude to a story of policy failure – one that may even affect perceptions of the Government’s competence at the next general election.