I listened with intent this morning as Damian Green MP did the rounds on television. He had the unenviable job of trying to paper over the cracks that have emerged since yesterday’s Police Crime Commissioner elections. These elections have proved, once again, that we need a real conversation in this country about our democracy.
Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are another bright idea of this Coalition government, first confirmed as Conservative policy way back in 2010. On paper, it sounds wonderful – making democracy more local, having an assigned person in control of policing priorities for specific areas. Well and good. But the success of such policies hinges on a naive belief that local electorates are interested and educated enough about PCCs to want to vote in such elections.
PCC elections took place yesterday across a swathe of localities. Turnout was expected to be 18.5 per cent according to the Electoral Reform Society – but the first few results have proved this to have been an optimistic estimate at best. In Wiltshire, turnout was just 15.2 per cent – 78,794 people voted out of a possible 520,000 registered voters. In Greater Manchester, turnout was 13.5 per cent. In the West Midlands, this figure dropped lower, with some election turnouts at a meagre 12 per cent.
So I was highly amused this morning to hear Mr Green come out with this hilarious quote:
“The measure of this policy is not the turnout, it’s what the police and crime commissioners achieve over the next few years.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20352539)
Amazing. Yes, Mr Green, we’re all looking forward to seeing how this experimental policy plays out over the next few years. But what you fail to understand that, actually, the success of a policy must begin with its own legitimacy. How can we seriously say that PCCs have a right to decide force budgets, appoint chief constables, and set local policing priorities when barely 15 per cent of the electorate gave them a vote? How can an MP imply on live TV that a core tenet of our democracy can be dismissed as long as a policy is successful? If you’re willing to admit on national television that turnout – whatever number – can be overlooked, what other democratic processes are similarly being overlooked?
These elections again prove the need for a proper discussion on where democracy is heading in this country. I have read from a range of sources about the reasons people did not turn out for these elections. Many voters did not know what they were being asked to vote for. Candidates were unknown to potential voters. Information was not given out on candidates and their manifestos. How can we ever expect people to get out and vote when they don’t know what they’re voting for?
We had a similar situation with the electoral system elections and I fear that we will see a continuation of decreasing turnout in parliamentary and European elections. We need to seize this opportunity in the wake of the PCC election results to ensure that your average Joe on the street is informed about why they’re voting, what exactly – in the most explicit terms – they are voting for, and who their choices are as candidates. This is especially important in the case of PCCs, some of whom will be earning a £100,000 pay packet in these roles.
Apathy and disenfranchisement are crippling our democracy. Confidence in our elected officials is at a low. It is absolutely crucial to the future of the British political system that action is taken now to prevent these turnout figures being repeated elsewhere. Tackling apathy starts in the classroom. We must arm future generations with the basic facts about the country they live in and the democracy within which they will eventually participate. If we cannot do this, then we are betraying the democracy and the freedoms which we have fought hard to keep over successive centuries. It’s time to act now.