This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How should PCCs handle questions over their legitimacy?

On Friday 23 November (12 - 2pm), the Guardian Public Leaders Network are hosting another online discussion around the legitimacy of PCCs in the light of the voter turnout. The discussion will be focusing on: "what the new PCCs will do to improve their legitimacy, after a record low voter turnout of 12-15% in the first PCC elections for England and Wales." I will be taking part so I have written this blog to warm my brain up, if nobody else's! (Link to discussion page is here)

41 new PCCs have now been elected with significant powers to set budgets, hire & fire Chief Constables and forge the overall direction of the local police service. However, questions have been raised about their legitimacy given the very poor turnout for the elections. How might they handle these questions?

Firstly it is important to say that even if the turnout had been lower (say 8%), each elected PCC would still be the 'legitimate' Police & Crime Commissioner for their area. That is the law and something that I said in my attempt to persuade people (who were considering not voting / spoiling ballot papers) to vote nonetheless either for their preferred or least disliked candidate.

But... whilst they are legitimate, do they have credibility? Will they have real influence?

In my view, whilst voter turnout will remain an issue, especially when the whole statute comes to be assessed in a few years time (and the Electoral Commission may well have something to say before then), I do not believe it will be a day to day issue for the PCCs. What will matter is whether the PCC earns the respect and trust of local communities and builds a solid working relationship with their Chief Constable. This will not depend on the percentage of voters who voted for them, but on their personal, professional and political leadership skills.

Indeed,  I would argue that the low voter turnout will prevent them from being too courageous (ie rash & despotic) in their decision making and instead they will be forced to use softer means of power to get their way. I suspect that any PCC who tries exercising the 'I have a mandate for this' line with their Chiefs will carefully sidelined in a 'Yes Minister' kind of way. I could well be wrong, but most of the Chiefs I know are pretty adept at handling politicians who are all bluster and no substance. (And let's not forget that most of the 'manifestos' were remarkably short on substance beyond the anodyne 'cut crime' crowd pleasing statements.)

The wise & skilful PCC will move on from voter turnout pretty darn quickly and begin to shape their influence around superlative leadership and being a very good politician. By that I mean, getting out there, listening to people and learning about the stories that will impact upon the Chief and her/his team. Anecdotes should not direct change (that should still be done by good evidential research) but they can drive change. This is part of the power that PCCs now have. Their other key power will be in asking thumping good questions... but that is for another blog soon.

If I had been elected as a PCC, one of the things I would be doing now, is conducting my own personal power audit: what kinds of power & influence do I have and where do I need to gain more?

And so to answer the question in my title: PCCs should address concerns about their legitimacy by earning credibility and trust through exceptional leadership. We now await to see who will do this well...


  1. Do you not think many of them (particularly those with little or no policing knowledge) will be so far up to their necks in understanding budgets, trying to cover what 17 PAuth members covered, and agreeing plans and precepts, on top of appointing staff and trying to talk (or fend off ) so many "Partnership" they will have time to even understand their powers? I think some will drown quickly!

    1. I think they all have an extraordinary tough job to wrestle with. And I worry that a few may well be overwhelmed by the scale of the job. I guess we will have to watch and see what happens...

  2. Peter W Skevington22/11/12 12:25

    Worth reading today's "Newcastle Journal", there is an article about the PCC election, as well as one by Vera Baird QC, the newly elected Labour PCC for Northumbria. We had two credible candidates Vera and Phil Butler (retired DCI), who was the Conservative choice. UKIP were not well served, their eventual choice of candidate had little time to promote himself or campaign, whilst the Lib Dem choice was anonymous. Butler and Baird campaigned and engaged treating the electorate with respect.

    1. Vera Baird got the highest 'approval rating' of all candidates elected. See below