The only real surprise for me about yesterday’s election for Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner is that so many people turned out.
That’s not true, it’s no surprise at all. You didn’t need to be a psychic to be able to confidently predict a low turnout and an easy Labour win in the Northumbria area.
A 16.4 per cent turnout is a shambles, and shows the whole project has no credibility with most people on the street.
Even with the ease of a postal vote, only a small minority of the electorate felt connected enough with the role to care about voting for it. Even in South Tyneside, which usually scrapes an average turnout of between 30 to 40 per cent (34 per cent in 2012), could only manage a 16.6 per cent turnout. That’s right, less than half of the number people in South Tyneside who normally vote in local elections could care less about the PCC project.
A bad idea, poorly promoted and forced on an electorate which have made their opinions known by staying away from the polling stations.
My worry now is that the government will use this low turnout as an excuse for introducing electronic voting run by private companies of the kind we see causing problems in the USA.
One silver lining though: no Tory (or politico of any other colour for that matter) will ever be able to criticise the credibility of union ballot turnouts without the PCC elections being thrown back in their face.
A stench of death is already hanging over the forthcoming election of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), and that’s before the votes start rolling in for the 15th November. Theresa May, clearly recognising a turnout disaster looming, has decided that it doesn’t really matter how many people will turn out and vote. When challenged on the likelihood of a low turnout, May responded:
“I never set a turnout threshold for any election, and I’m not going to do it now. What I do know is that the people who are elected as police and crime commissioners would have something that the current police authorities do not have. For the first time ever they will have a democratic mandate for the people for the work that they’re doing.”
But the point is that if turnouts are low, there will be no credibility for the role amongst the electorate.
No votes, no credibility. No democratic mandate.
May’s response is unconvincing, and has all the subtlety of an adolescent blocking out uncomfortable truths by putting her fingers in her ears and shouting ’la la la, I’m not listening!’
This ignoring of reality by a politician at the helm of a flagship project should be terrifying for everyone who is interested in democracy.
Do I really want anything to do with this wreck in waiting? Is this one of those situations where not voting is a credible statement of a lack of faith in a project wanted by no-one outside the Tory backbench bubble? This could be one of those scenarios where mass silence speaks more than a million voices.
It’s no surprise that the candidates for Northumbria PCC are exclusively from party political backgrounds, none of which represent my values. The UKIP and Lib Dem candidates seem to be there just to make the numbers up, given that they’ve been so invisible, with the spotlight focussing mainly on Vera Baird, the Labour candidate, and Tory candidate Philip Butler. Given the massive tribal Labour voting patterns in the North East, Vera Baird looks like a shoe-in.
A couple of posts back I wondered if I was going to vote. On current evidence, I won’t be.
In less than one month, on November 15th, elections are being held for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). Not that you would know, given the nearly complete lack of publicity it has received. It doesn’t bode well for turnout numbers.
Ever since the Tories introduced the PCC concept, I’ve struggled with the purpose of it, or what benefits the average citizen would see against what the current commissioning structure provides. Will it usher in smarter budgets at a time of austerity, a louder voice for citizens, a better democracy, or will we be saddled with concentrated power, a draconian knee-jerk justice system or whacky pet projects?
Early on in the push for PCCs, some candidates withdrew from the process due to the punitive nature of the qualifying rules relating to the criminal records of candidates. A PCC candidate can’t stand if they have a past criminal record, even if those crimes were committed as a juvenile. Many were from petty crimes from many years ago, some committed as children, some as a result of circumstances and lifestyles which the candidates left behind long ago. People have been held back from engaging in a democratic process over long forgotten crimes. Not a good start for democracy.
It’s no surprise that the deposit for standing, a whopping £5,000, has put many people off standing a a candidate. Raising the money, and then being willing to risk losing it on an electoral gamble is a barrier that most people wouldn’t be able to breach. Labour have a clear advantage in the PCC funding stakes as the party will centrally fund candidates. Tory candidates are expected to raise their funds themselves from local party donors. Independents will have to find the money themselves, or enjoy the benevolence of a generous backer.
Add to that £5,000 deposit, any candidate who is serious about being elected needs to have funding for any kind of effective publicity. Just hoping someone will vote for you without any kind of campaign or media exposure almost guarantees electoral ambivalence.
Most of the candidates who will end up with their names on the ballot paper will come from party political backgrounds. That means they come from the same networks, the same social groups. Those connections give an access to business people, local government bureaucrats and politicians; an advantageous level of access to people and information that those on the outside of the political hot-house could only dream of. In addition, there is a support network for advice, marketing, press relations, even an army of feet on the high streets handing out leaflets and callers on the end of promotional phone lines. The result: political power will be further concentrated into existing party groupings.
Spent and forgotten crimes, a costly deposit, a lack of media exposure, no support network and the difficulty of breaking through a rigid political structure aren’t the best ingredients for an open democracy.
The new role, and the nature of it being subject to that next election in a few years time, could also present risks to existing structures and initiatives, where hunting the populist vote may mean less popular or complex and difficult to describe projects could be dropped in favour of policies designed to put sound bites before efficacy. As we saw with the Prof David Nutt episode, the electorally pragmatic temptation for politicians to put votes before evidence and facts can be just too tempting.
Drug treatment, youth crime reduction and offender rehabilitation schemes could all fall under the knife of a commissioner desperate to satiate the hang-em and flog-em blood lust of the daily mail commentariat. Such initiatives could face mortal cuts, funnelling money from prevention schemes to commission more visible policies, or even pie-in-sky headline grabbers (like Rangers) with an eye on the next election.
And once a PCC is in, they’re in. If they perform poorly, do something stupid or wrong, the electorate are stuck with them until the next election. Only the Secretary of State can remove them from post.
The goal should be the improvement of police services and crime prevention; lower crime rates and safer communities, and a police force that considers itself part of the community, rather than above it.
The Police and Crime Commissioners initiative risks making justice even more remote from the citizenry, locking decision making on budgets and commissioning into yet another cycle of political electioneering, and creating another professional political cadre detached from the realities of crime and justice and the concerns of the average citizen on the streets.
Whenever there are terrible events like the murder of two police officers in Manchester this week, some people can go straight into emotional overdrive and self-righteous outrage. Take South Shields’ Cleadon and East Boldon councillor Jeff Milburn, who told the Shields Gazette:
“I think the death penalty should be brought back and murderers put on death row like in America.”
“They could be on there for six, maybe 10 years, giving enough time for any information showing they were wrongly convicted to come to light.
For an experienced politician it seems a very immature and poorly considered response. The US justice system is hardly a shining beacon for the rest of the world to follow, and its penal system is littered with miscarriages of justice ending in the executions of innocent people. People with learning difficulties, mental illness and those convicted as children have been executed by a legal system that thirsts for vengeance. There is no solid evidence to suggest that capital punishment has any impact in reducing murder rates. So much so that execution is little more than a cynical political opportunity to satisfy public blood lust.
“We should get rid of people that murder.”
We should carry on imprisoning them. The UK’s own past with capital punishment is a shameful one. The Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six: all examples of a justice system which failed, all examples of people who would have been victims of the hangman’s rope if capital punishment had not been repealed.
Death is the ultimate sanction. A pardon after a trip to the end of the hangman’s rope is merely a gesture, and utterly meaningless to the victim.
It is impossible to have a legal system where the right person is convicted every time, or that a convicted person receives the right sentence. A judicial system that uses capital punishment will at some point execute the wrong person, no matter how many genuinely guilty people are executed. That is not justice, nor is it civilised.
I do agree with Coun Milburn on one thing though:
“Police officers do an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances. These two officers were no exception and their loss is a real tragedy.”
However, there is some irony at play here. Coun Milburn is a member of the Tory party, which in government is cutting police numbers, whilst freezing their salaries and reducing the value of the pensions that police officers can expect at retirement. In this context, such a tribute to public servants reeks of a politician’s hollow sincerity.
Two weeks ago today I called the Police. I dialled 999 because I noticed that a toddler had been left asleep in a car parked outside my house. The toddler wasn’t alone, the parent had left a dog in the car with the child. It was a perfect recipe for tragedy. If you were going to break some unwritten rules of parenting you’ve pretty much hit the jackpot.
I knocked on neighbours’ doors to see if the car belonged to someone visiting, without luck.
The police were prompt; the first car arrived in about seven minutes, followed by another three over the next five minutes. Just over twenty minutes after my call to the police a woman with a child came running down the street from the nearby shopping centre, having obviously seen the four police cars parked in the street. I couldn’t say how long the woman had left the child in the car, but it was at least twenty minutes. I left the police to do what they do and returned to my house.
I’ve heard nothing since. No request for a statement or an update courtesy call. Looking at the Northumbria Police website there’s no commitment to do so. However, when there’s rarely a week goes without the police and the council in the press patting each other on the back for their strides in partnership and community engagement, is it unrealistic to expect a two minute phone call? Or am I being too needy?
Most rational people agree that electronic equipment is really bad at detecting ghosts. EMF meters, ghost boxes and motion detectors are equally rubbish at detecting spirits, ghosts, souls or whatever you would call them. You wouldn’t expect the UK law enforcement agencies to use ghost boxes to try and ask a murdered man who his killer was. It would be stupid. Why? Because such equipment has not been proven to do what its proponents claim.
However, this doesn’t mean that law enforcement agencies aren’t subject to the same biases and fallibilities as optimistic ghost hunters.
Today the government has announced that polygraph testing is to be introduced across the UK for serious sex offenders on probation. This is problematic, as polygraph testing, despite being around for about 90 years, has not been proven and still exists in the realm of pseudoscience. Almost all psychologists agree that polygraph testing cannot be relied upon to identify if someone is telling the truth.
Despite this, the government wants to use the magic truth divining box – as seen on Jeremy Kyle to see if a chav has been lying to his girlfriend.
From the reports it seems that the test used by the probation service was little more than an elaborate wheeze to trick the offenders into coughing up the truth. The pilot programme results claimed that:
mandatory lie detector tests prompted sex offenders to:
• Be more honest with their offender managers. A No 10 source said they provided probation staff with more information about the potential risks they pose.
• Make twice as many disclosures to probation staff, such as admitting that they had contacted a victim.
• Admit the tests helped them manage their own behaviour more effectively.
The first two claims rely on several assumptions:
(a) the offenders believed the lie detector works;
(b) the offenders were completely truthful and not leaving out key information;
(c) the offenders were not able to game the test.
The third claim should have the bullshit claxon sounding off in any objective mind. Of course the offenders are going to claim the lie detector test worked if they think it would be favourable for them. There would be a self interested motivation for the offenders to tell their interviewers what they wanted to hear.
Polygraph tests rely heavily on the subjective judgement of the person conducting the test, by inference rather than intelligence. This appears to be little more than casting runes or reading tarot cards, except with the modern sparkle of electronics. Why not bring back phrenology to spot criminals?
Such a system might work, but it relies on the assumption that offenders don’t wise up to the truth: that polygraph tests are so fallible as to make them worthless. I can easily imagine offenders in prison training each other on passing these tests.
The government claims the pilot was a success (even the Guardian does), based on nothing more than what appears to be wishful thinking. That all adds up to a lot of bullshit.
South Tyneside councillor David Potts has thrown his hat in the ring for the job of Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner. His candidate statement is here on the TopOfTheCops.com blog, and it makes for interesting reading.
“I will clean up the streets of our region, make people feel safe in their homes, and tackle drug dealers and other scumbags with a firm hand”
Very commendable ambitions, but the ‘firm hand’ seems out of tune with the David Potts who exhibited a less than firm anti-crime stance when he offered himself as a character witness for a man who assaulted his ex-partner and her new partner. One of the victims of the assault was less than satisfied after the conviction:
“I think the sentence is a bit lenient”
It seems odd that David Potts thinks he has the kind of character to handle the job. On Twitter, he’s a bit of a maverick, to put it kindly. He put South Shields in the national press after calling MP David Miliband a wanker. A couple of weeks ago he hit the local press again after offering to meet up with a constituent at a ‘bunga bunga‘ party. And he hasn’t been shy in offering his very low opinion of public sector workers, despite being classified as a council employee himself to justify the wodges of council tax-payers cash being thrown at the hunt for the elusive Mr Monkey.
And he’s no stranger to the Police himself either. In March he was on the receiving end of a police caution for the unauthorised disclosure of personal data, an incident which may see him in front of South Tyneside Council’s Standards Committee.
But to be fair to him, he has some thrilling ideas for beating crime. He proposes setting up a special task force called the ‘Rangers’, which will do all kinds of busting and suchlike. Whether this branding idea was inspired by the Texas Rangers or the US Rangers is unknown. It all sounds very exciting and dynamic.
It is quaint to note that despite the tools of 21st Century policing – high tech equipment, helicopters, fast cars and weaponry, Potts still sees a role for traditional policing; one of his key proposals is more mounted officers. No doubt they’ll prove invaluable when the Mongols descend from the Mongolian steppe to pillage the streets of the North East.