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Wednesday, November 14, 2012 

Spoil early, spoil often.

Tomorrow, as you simply must have heard, sees the election of the first police and crime commissioners. Even if you've been living under a rock for the past year, you must have seen that wonderful video of the little girl crying over the constant coverage given to the issue, or found at least one piece of literature relating to the vote, such has been the abundance of leaflets shoved through letterboxes across England and Wales.  Who doesn't now know the names of the candidates standing in their police authority, or realise the utmost importance of putting some sort of political figure in charge, where previously chief constables dithered and blithered and told lies to everyone?  Everyone I know has been crying out for this sort of reform for years, and now finally we have the opportunity to put in place a washed-up party political figure to perform exactly the same task as was done in-house previously, only with the commissioner receiving an additional salary on top of that of the chief constable.

To call tomorrow's vote a completely pointless exercise is in some places hardly an exaggeration.  Such has been the enthusiasm that in three police authorities voters will have a choice between a Conservative and a Labour candidate, taking us back to the era when the two main parties won over 90% of the vote.  

The field is broader elsewhere, such as in my authority where all three main parties are standing alongside UKIP and two independents, but even then the candidates are deeply uninspiring.  The Labour candidate only defected from the Lib Dems after the setting up of the coalition, the UKIP candidate boasts, hilariously, that his party "does not have an overbearing central body of ideology built up over decades", and the pledges from the Tory candidate seem to have been copy/pasted from central office's guide on how to run your campaign.  The independents both say they're opposed to the politicisation of the police, but such have been the obstacles placed in the way of non-party candidates, with the deposit absurdly raised to £5,000 when it's only £500 at general elections, no free mail shots and the slightest of offences disqualifying candidates, the chances of anyone unable to gain major funding getting themselves elected seem minute.

Apart from the polling cards, I haven't received a single leaflet or any other indication through the mail that there's an election tomorrow.  If the Electoral Commission has been sending out booklets to every address in the country where there's a vote as they claim, then mine seems to have got lost somewhere.  Apparently there's been adverts running during the X Factor and Downton Abbey, yet anyone resistant to the charms of a programme dedicated to increasing Simon Cowell's bank balance while hastening the musical apocalypse and a drama based around the worship of early 20th century social deference will be none the wiser.  As for those without a free local paper or access to the internet, the only place to get information is a dedicated phone line, which naturally has been a fiasco.  This it seems will be the model for future elections, and interaction with the state in general: if you're not online, and clearly there's no excuse when it's the future daddio, then you might as well do yourself in now.

For those who like me have always voted, whether it be general, local, European or referendum, despite the chances of it changing anything being close to nil, the entire debacle raises a quandary.  The idea that these new commissioners will be a breath of fresh air and able to hold the police to account is laughable when the vast majority of the candidates are either local party apparatchiks or former MPs, many of whom will have dealt with the police previously on very favourable terms.  While some probably will try and put their own mark on local policing, demanding extra patrols in certain areas or zero tolerance on offensive beards, the chances are very little will change.  There may well be clashes of personality, and the odd sacking of a chief constable should they be deemed not draconian enough for a certain commissioner's liking, but it's not going to happen across the board.  Certainly, the public will barely even notice the difference.

Why then bother? Notes from a Broken Society argues that not voting or spoiling your ballot will be taken as a vote for the status quo, for the step-by-step privatisation of the police, and that wanting to keep politics out of policing is a misnomer in itself.  It's an argument I have some sympathy with: clearly, a low turnout isn't going to worry the Tories when the entire process seems to have been designed specifically to depress the vote.  Policing most definitely is political, it's true; what we don't need is the party politicisation of the police, especially at the local level.  We already have it nationally, and at best it's a distraction and at worst a licence for the persecution of minorities.  The requirement for the elected commissioners to swear an oath of impartiality is a cop-out, if you'll excuse the pun; why vote for a party candidate unless you agree somewhat with their national policy on law and order?  Also, while back office privatisation is taking place at a local level, it's going to be policy nationally that decides just how far it spreads, and regardless of Labour's opposition at the moment, you wouldn't bet against them changing their tune should they win the next election.

The best approach does then rather depend on your local circumstances (duh).  I'm most likely going to spoil my ballot, as neither independent seems to have a realistic chance of winning, and I can't see any significant difference among the party candidates.  As for the message to send, Janice Gwilliam has a template that's worth emulating, although I'm sure ACAB will also be a favourite.  Where there's an independent with a chance, there's never been a better opportunity to put the point across that parties should stay out of policing.  And as the elections are being held under the supplementary vote, you can always plump for a party candidate as your second choice if there's someone especially unpleasant (like John Prescott or the British Freedom Party's Kevin Carroll in Bedfordshire) on the ballot who could sneak in.

Oh, and as always, vote (or spoil) early and often.

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