Friday, October 28, 2011

The Lib Dems have a duty to contest police commissioner elections

The decision of the Federal Executive that the party should not contest next year’s police commissioner elections is misguided and wrong. To be clear, FE hasn’t actually said that Lib Dem candidates must not stand, but there will be no federal funding for these elections and its suggestion that ‘Individual Liberal Democrats may support non party candidates’ is hardly a rallying cry for local parties to fight energetic campaigns.

Perhaps I will be in a tiny minority in feeling so strongly about this, but it seems to me that the whole issue has been bungled by the party from start to finish. As a result, we have a mess from which we don’t even emerge with honour intact.

The election of police commissioners was always going to be a problem for the party, as it was one of the few elements of the coalition agreement that provoked strongly-held and near-unanimous opposition among Liberal Democrat activists. Although it was clear that the coalition would have a change of heart on creating police commissioners, in practice it wasn’t a problem as the elections were to take place on the same day as next year’s local elections. So we could fight two elections for the price of one, just as we do when European and council elections are fought on the same day.

Then came this year’s disappointing local election results, in which a difficult situation was made worse by many non Lib Dem voters turning out to vote No in the referendum and Tory or Labour in the council elections. At the Lib Dem local government conference in the summer, there seemed to be a strong view from councillors, campaigners and defeated candidates that having police commissioner elections on the same day as the local elections would be disastrous for our chances of holding council seats, and this opinion was expressed very strongly to ministers etc.

I found myself a lone voice in arguing the opposite case. The referendum did harmed in the council elections because the Conservative party threw all its weight behind getting its supporters out to vote, as the referendum became a must-win for Cameron. By contrast, police commissioner elections would largely be a local matter, influenced more by the ground war than the air war and in my view there was little cause for alarm. In the past we have not been harmed in the past by having European and council elections on the same day – arguably the need to knock up our local vote has helped us to get more MEPs elected. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is with mayoral elections, and there too people largely treat them as local elections. In my view local government colleagues were drawing the wrong conclusion from this May’s double header.

This was not a popular view, however and there was near unanimity that the date of the police commissioner elections just had to be moved. But the consequences of the change of date needed to be considered also. If the police commissioner elections did not take place on the first Thursday in May, we would end up having to spend a lot of money and motivate activists to fight a set of elections that in most places we would have little chance of winning because of the size of the constituencies.

Regardless of whether it would help our prospects in council elections, the announcement in September that the police commissioner elections were being moved to November 2012 meant that it was highly unlikely that the Lib Dems would contest them seriously, or indeed at all.  Even before the date changed, the lack of urgency shown by the English party in developing approval and selection procedures for police commissioner candidates was a worrying sign that we were preparing to surrender without a fight any chance of influencing local policing. Likewise, at the recent federal conference in Birmingham there was a noticeable lack of training sessions, fringe meetings and the like on fighting police commissioner elections.

Federal Executive’s decision merely confirms what I feared. But while it may save the party money and spare campaigners the need to tramp the streets on cold, dark November evenings, it remains a bad decision. Effectively the national party is saying that having helped to create these posts it has no interest in ensuring that policing in our communities is carried out in line with Liberal principles. It is leaving it to the sheer chance of whether an independent, liberal-minded figure comes forward. Even then we are faced with the dilemma of whether to divert resources to campaigning for a non Lib Dem candidate or ignoring the election at the price of allowing authoritarian opponents a free run.

In my view, as a minimum, the central party should be look to use these elections as a campaigning opportunity. This would mean picking the best prospect of victory and treating it like a parliamentary by-election with the hope that at least one of the new police commissioners would be a Lib Dem. Elsewhere it should encourage the selection of candidates and a national campaign of talking to our supporters, to reaffirm their support, encourage them to vote in the police commissioner election and to recruit new members, helpers and so forth. In places with elections in 2013 this would help kickstart their campaign.

It occurs to me that there may be a Machiavellian hope lurking in some minds that by not contesting the elections, we are undermining their credibility and that if a series of local mavericks are elected the Conservatives will see the error of their ways and police commissioners will prove a short-lived experiment. I doubt whether this will be the case. Taking away people’s right to vote is unlikely to be popular.

Whichever way, the party nationally cannot expect to be taken seriously on crime policy if it effectively declares that it has no interest in taking responsibility for policing at local level. In my view it has a moral duty to contest these elections and the central party has a moral duty to give active support and encouragement to local campaigners to do so. Is it too much to hope that the party’s great and good will think again?

PS: Both Jonathan Calder and Anders Hanson have put forward strong arguments in favour of the Lib Dems contesting these elections.

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