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I did not vote yesterday. I would have if I had still lived in Cardiff South and Penarth. If I had been there I would have taken my democratic responsibility seriously enough to cast my ballot in a by election that should never have needed to happen. But I do not and therefore I did not.
There is no pride in this admission. This deliberate dereliction has never happened to me before. Perhaps there would be the opportunity to feel more satisfaction if I had troubled myself to make the journey to a polling station to spoil my ballot paper, as probably a record number of people did. It just wasn’t worth the effort and that’s because the Government which brought in the new system of Police and Crime Commissioners did so with little effort either. The Electoral Reform Society has already predicted a turnout of 18.5%, which scrapes a new low in a national poll, beating the pitiful 23% in the 1999 European elections. Early indications show that the turnout in the election for the Greater Manchester PCC at 13.5%, and Wiltshire at 15.8%. Expect similarly derisory results in Wales later today.
And is that democracy? Remember when David Cameron condemned trade unions for holding strikes based on just 27% turnout in the ballot? He probably won’t try that dismissive tactic again.
This was an election that never needed to happen. There was no demand for the creation of PCCs. The National Assembly for Wales expressed its own misgivings when it initially rejected the powers to create these posts last year. Ultimately the power was forced on it through arm twisting, thereby choking off any opportunity to develop a made in Wales solution. This high handedness is one of the best arguments yet why policing should be devolved to the National Assembly, and it will certainly feature in the cases made to the Silk Commission when it begins the second phase of its work, looking at which policy areas could and should be devolved.
Things could have been very different. If there was genuine demand for these PCCs to be created then it should have been tested at local level using local referenda, in the same way that happens to ascertain the appetite for elected mayors. This test of necessity is vital in providing the sort of legitimacy and momentum which has been sadly lacking in the unwanted reform of creating PCCs. It has created a new form of pseudo-elected police micro manager which could well lead to dispute and conflict within the police forces of Wales as the years roll by. Even if it does not, the election has certainly not provided the necessary degree of legitimacy to the newly elected Commissioners.
Knowing that this “democratic reform” was unwanted and little understood, the UK Government should have ensured proper attention was given to the electoral campaigns themselves. It did not. No direct mailings equal no direct contact, and a fall back position in which only the political parties could really profit. The Conservatives could win every Commissioner election in England and Wales today – they won’t – and those results could be open to challenge because the necessary support structures for the election were not in place and the turnout so low. The Electoral Reform Society has already branded the government’s handling of the elections a “comedy of errors”, which is a rather kind reflection.
Labour too must bear some responsibility in this farce. They may have opposed the creation of PCCs in the first place but, having won the arguments but lost the vote in the Commons, they then decided to engage and selected candidates across the whole of Wales and England. Today Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper is condemning the process but not the results of the PCC elections. Labour will be profiting politically from a system they fundamentally opposed and which, here in Wales, our democratic body rejected due to the actions of Labour backbenchers. It creates rather a conundrum which could be solved by every Labour Police and Crime Commissioner refusing to take up their posts, thereby nailing dead this initiative. Such a move will not happen. There is more likelihood of Teresa May taking responsibility for this fiasco and resigning herself.
There is a serious and dangerous point at the heart of all this and which should worry people concerned about democracy and participation. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are a challenge and a danger to our democracy. Recent years have seen a worrying decline in voter participation and this whole exercise has simply accentuated that. Many people who care about democracy and always vote have felt neither empowered by the campaigns, public or political, to make an informed choice or to participate at all.
Thursday 15th November 2012 was the day that an initiative said to enhance democracy had the complete opposite effect. It is not a day to look back with anything other than a sense of shame and bewilderment.
Daran Hill is MD of Positif Politics