That the turnout for the election of police and crime commissioners is so low is hardly a surprise. It has been talked up by the government over the past few weeks though I suspect that there was the hope that the figure would get over 20 per cent. Early indications are that the government will not even achieve this and the blame game has already begun. Apparently it was the media’s fault—insufficient coverage and a failure to get across what the elections were about. Absolute nonsense…in my authority we received mailshots from all candidates and anyway there was widespread and effective coverage on the BBC website and through local television and radio. The government may be right that in the next elections (to be held in May not on a dank November day) there may be an increased participation by the electorate as it gets to see what the police commissioners can do. However, attempts to portray this as a victory for democracy are decidedly misplaced. Those elected may have legitimacy but their authority to act is seriously compromised. How could a police commissioner elected on less than ten per cent of the vote sack a chief constable or have the authority to push through unpopular changes?
Why so few people used their votes is not difficult to explain. The number of people voting in national and local elections has been declining since the 1950s though this has accelerated in recent decades. The responsibility of individuals to vote appears to have gone out of fashion. There are two main reasons for this. First, as all political parties have become centrist in their aspirations so the differences between them have lessened: what people say is that it doesn’t matter who you elect, you get the same thing. While this may not be true, it is increasingly how people view political parties and the non-ideological focus of much politics means that political parties often do not differ on the principle merely the details. Secondly, there is an intense mistrust of politicians that predated the MPs’ expenses scandal but was intensified by it. We simply do not trust politicians who say or promise one thing and then do another and generally fail to justify why to people’s satisfaction. This is not helped when politicians make decisions that the public regard as simply unfair. Take, for instance, the reduction of the upper level of income tax from 50p. Although this may have made sound economic sense, in the minds of those on lower incomes it appeared simply to advantage the richer at the expense of the poorer shattering any belief people ever had (if they ever did) in the notion of everyone being in this together and has proved a public relations disaster.
It may be true that turnout for elections for police commissioners will improve once the innovation is bedded in but I have my doubts. Despite the protestations that the new positions are non-partisan and that those elected will act on behalf of the whole community (which they must if they want to be re-elected), there are grave concerns about how far their election will result in an even more politicised approach to policing. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case but it does reflect an intense suspicion of constitutional change in this country and rightfully so. Constitutional change is frequently introduced by political parties to advantage their own position at the expense of other political parties and often at the expense of the electorate. Yet the one issue on which there would be widespread public involvement—a referendum of the European Union—has been denied by successive governments for reasons that are often specious and almost always politically motivated. There is a growing chasm between the political classes and the public across Britain that these elections have served to heighten and a belief that politicians, of whatever hue, are only ever willing to allow people to vote on issues that they known they will win or that they are not too committed to and are prepared to lose simply to show that they do listen to the people. In democracies, election provides those elected with legitimacy, a mandate to act but low turnout removed the authority they need to carry out that mandate.