Police the police

Agreeing with former Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair is not easy. It’s not without problems because this is the man who presided over the force at the time of Jean Charles de Menezes’ shooting and whose choice quotes includes referring to Islamic terrorism as the greatest threat to the United Kingdom since ‘the Cold War or the Second World War’. I’d like to say it’s easy to find middle ground with him, but it’s just as easy to compromise with a patch of nettles or quicksand. Or your bank manager a week before payday.

Anyway, yesterday Sir Ian (“Baron Blair of Boughton”, if you please) told SKY News that he’d recommend nobody vote in the forthcoming Police Commissioner elections. He isn’t convinced that one elected person, almost all with party political labels, could possibly manage looking after the police force and crime fighting priorities across a massive geographical area. It’s not as though the politicisation of the police was an unknown concept at his time in office, of course, though the relationship between the Met and the then Labour government wasn’t exactly like that between choice eastern European governments and their police forces. Close, of course, but not that close.

So why do I find myself sort of, kind of, agreeing with him? I’m a constitutional reform sort of guy, I supported the AV referendum and want to see House of Lords reform and local government reform and votes at 16 and all the other things which would drag this country into the 20th century (I don’t hold out hope for us to get into the 21st for a good generation or twelve yet.)  The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are a different kind of reform though, looking tempting on the box whilst only providing fudge chews underneath. And nobody picks fudge chocolates from selection boxes, do they? I want orange and mint and mini Bountys, not fudge. Yet next month we’re all being invited to gorge on fudge, an experiment in constitutional reform which radically alters the relationship between the police and who polices them, with the SV voting system for the love of all things holy, and I can’t swing myself behind them. It’s like finding a private club available for a very specific fetish only to discover the admission price is too high. Or not high enough. Or in a different currency, perhaps. Ach you know what I mean.

Few people out there in real life world dislike the concept of democratising the police-force. Lord knows how the police need to be held accountable, more so than at the moment, and in the context of recent institutional failings the police could do with a stronger, more responsive structure around them. But American style Police Commissioners? Directly elected? And not just that, of course, directly elected and almost exclusively from political parties? In the case of Labour’s candidates, current MPs (Tony Lloyd in Greater Manchester, the sitting MP for Manchester Central, and Alun Michael in South Wales is the current representative for Cardiff South and Penarth) and former Ministers (including Lord Prescott in Humberside.)  In Wales, Alun Michael’s son – his son – is standing as a candidate in North Wales. Now that’s Eastern European.

In Lancashire, the four candidates are all party political, all male, and half of them are sitting County Councillors. One is the current portfolio holder for transport, whose lasting legacy seems to be the removal of bus timetables from the county’s bus-stops. Is this really the best we’ve got? Could this really be the reform we need?

As a democrat, I’d never knowingly stay away from a polling station. I’m no stranger to making difficult decisions in that moment of secrecy – in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate at local elections I’ve been known to vote for another party rather than spoil my ballot. Next month will be my toughest challenge. I’ll vote Liberal Democrat but…what for? For whom? For what? Sir Ian has a point – there’s real reform needed at the core of our police force and this has to come from within as much as it comes from beyond. I’m not sure it needs to be done at the ballot box. Dust off Lords Reform, I say, that might be something worth contemplating. That’s how bad it might be….