In case you didn’t hear – you probably didn’t – but Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections, of two weeks ago, were a fairly big deal. The 41 men and women who, will take charge of this newly-created position, may not be able to strictly ‘control’ the police force and its operations per se, are able to set their constituency’s police priorities and budget as well as hold the power to appoint and dismiss the Chief Constable. These PCCs are therefore reasonably important.

Despite this, last week’s election completely failed to grab the public’s imagination. Indeed, the election saw the lowest peacetime turnouts in the UK’s political history with the country-wide average standing at around 15% of the total electorate, meaning that less than one-in-five, who could have, used their right to vote. Just for a point of reference; this is compared to a turnout of 65.1% in the 2010 general election.

Yet, this fact alone doesn’t paint how bad the picture really was; in Staffordshire, the turnout was as low as 11.6% whilst in one polling station – in Newport, South Wales –  not one voter turned up. Even last year’s unpopular AV referendum attracted more than twice as many votes.

What went wrong then? Many have accounted for the low turnout as a form of political protest; the idea of politicizing the police, after all, has proved to be extremely controversial with widespread public and media condemnation of the idea. Undoubtedly, there is some truth to this with over 120,000 spoilt ballot papers – that’s ten times the rate of the 2010 general election.

Many papers did indeed have pictures, statements and essays on them as a clear political rejection and protest against the proposed PCC proposition. Ultimately though, these numbers have clearly been overstated with such spoiling accounting for 3% of total votes cast. Even then, evidence of deliberate spoiling – rather than just voting system confusion – was only found in a third of these, thus only about 1% of voters used their ballot slip to express their disagreement.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there wasn’t more widespread opposition. The fact that so many independents did well – with twelve candidates triumphing over their party alternatives – can account for so much with voters turning away from the political establishment. Indeed, the Conservatives lost to such candidates even in their so-called expected ‘safe’ seats of Surrey, Hampshire and Norfolk. The public thus decided that party politics – and its politicians – have little place in our police force; independents were seen as the more apolitical choice.

Moreover, 19% of non-voters said that this ‘politicization’, and subsequent disenchantment with the policy, was their reason for refusing to vote. The truth of such statistics need to be question – political opposition rather than abject apathy is a far sexier excuse for non-voting – but it, nonetheless, shows both the underlying mood towards the policy and the tension between the electorate and its government.

At a time when political apathy is ever-growing though, the PCC elections were unlikely to get the public energised and engaged. The involvement of party politics is hardly a turn-on for voters who are already fed up of seeing the list of candidates from the usual sources. The appearance of candidates as older white males probably only entrenched this view. Many such voters may have been abstaining for political purposes, but it is likely than that most were purely not bothered by the election.

Apathy therefore accounted for much of the poor turnout; non-voters overwhelming outnumbered spoilt ballots by 175 to one. It is a strange dynamic where the British public are increasing given more and more chances to votes for things; yet, they are unequivocally declining that offer.

In the age of representative democracy, people expect the government to govern for them rather than offload this responsibility onto the British public. There is little appetite for this kind of ‘localism’ – and bureaucracy-creating – legislation that has attempted to be pushed upon the British public since the Blair years and even-more so under Cameron. Most counties and cities are quite happy with centralised decision-making, provided it is transparent and accountable, above control of how local services are run.

Undoubtedly then, much of the problem with the election was that it was an unpopular policy being forced upon the disinterested British public; there is no demand for these PCC positions. It is therefore clear to see then that people don’t want more democracy, but reform in, and thus better, government (albeit with local politics not the solution) – and with it, government that offers a real chance of change rather than party politics.

What Kept People At Home?

This disenchantment does not tell the whole story however; the poor governmental decisions and farcical nature of the election only magnified the affect of this apathy. With no information mail-shots, party-candidate saturation and being held in one of the coldest months of the year, the government did do a shambolic and botch job of organising the election.

In fact, shambles is somewhat of an understatement. 45% of people who didn’t vote said they felt they had insufficient information about the role and candidates to do so. This was the government’s biggest error; in failing to educate and provide clarity on what the role actually entails, as well as how the Supplementary Vote system works (which was used in most areas, whilst others were elected under First-Past-The-Post: the use of two different voting systems in the same electoral process needs explaining in itself).

The sending out of a mail-out, explaining such details as well as the different candidates’ policies, were rejected despite estimates it would cost only £30 million to do so. Information was available via websites and a on-request brochure, but these was far too pointless and flawed; you cannot, after all, expect people to find information on an issue that most don’t care, or even know, about. With no engagement over the issues – in fact, publicity of any sorts were extremely sparse to come by – the low turnout was unsurprising.

Other numerous problems were brought to attention during the process. Why was the election held in cold and wet November, considering all other elections are traditionally held in the spring/summer? It may be an superficial excuse, but getting back from work to a cold, dark and short evening would hardly of been a motivation for voters. The more obvious solution would of been to hold it in May with local elections. Huge deposits were also needed to purely be involved in the elections, whilst over £350,000 of ballot paper were landfilled after failing to be bi-lingual for Welsh voters.

The media didn’t cover itself in glory either; with the PCC elections excluded from London – Boris Johnson does such a role as mayor – it meant much of the nation’s capital-based newspaper failed to fill the void of information left by the government.

Voters were hard to come by

The PCC election was thus pure fiasco; the Electoral Reform Society branded the government’s running of it as a “comedy of errors”. Even backbench Conservative MPs acknowledged there had been major mistakes. The government simply magnified an already apathetic population with its poor implementation of both the process and the policy. £100 million used – enough money to employ another 3000 police officers for year -on a governmental disaster. As Darren Hughes, from the Today programme stated, the election felt like “the Home Office was running an experiment into how low you can drive voter turnout”.

So then? Apathy, protest or farce? The bad news for the government is all three accounted for the low turnout; a poorly-backed policy and a dog’s breakfast of an election process simply further damaged the political alienation and democratic participation of British citizens. Indeed, it is this low turnout and growing apathy that must be seen as the major issue of the election.

Consequently, there now has to be questions asked on the legitimacy of the election result and whether the 41 PCCs have a right to exist – when so many of the electorate have essentially rejected the existence of the position and those elected have such limited backing, these people have no popular mandate for their power. No wonder a watchdog, the Electoral Commission, is set to conduct a review over the whole process.

Image by Helen Scibilia

The Police and Crime Commissioners election was suppose to be a flagship law and order policy for the coalition; in fact, the idea of having a more democratically-accountable police force is in many ways a good thing. Instead, poor planning, limited government information and the involvement of political parties have made the PCC elections a utter disaster, a crime against democracy and further fragmented the fragile relationship between politicians and people. Another policy to add to the ominshambles of the coalition.

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