The first ever elections for police and crime commissioners are on track for the lowest turnout for a nationwide set of elections in British history, leading to fears for the legitimacy of the new police watchdogs.
Turnout based on returns from 30 of the 41 police force areas averages just 15%, below even the most doom-laden predictions, ranging from 12% in the West Midlands to 19% in Humberside and Avon and Somerset. In Gwent, one Newport polling station had no voters at all.
Downing Street blamed the fact that the £75m elections were “a brand new idea” and a lack of coverage in the “London-based media” for the poor turnout. David Cameron insisted the new police watchdogs, who have the power to hire and fire chief constables, would have a mandate because they were “replacing organisations that weren’t directly elected at all”.
The Electoral Commission confirmed it would carry out an inquiry into the low turnout, saying the elections had been run in a number of ways they did not agree with.
The early results saw an existing Conservative police authority member and accountant, Angus Macpherson, declared the first police commissioner in Britain since 1835 after he was elected in Wiltshire on a 15% turnout. Just 8% of those eligible to vote backed him. Macpherson said his first priority was to implement savings in his force’s budget. He will have to resign as a magistrate to take the job.
There were 2,683 spoilt ballot papers in Wiltshire, or just over 3% of the votes cast, suggesting a significant number of people wanted to show that protest rather than apathy lay behind their decision to “abstain in person”.
A second Conservative commissioner, Christopher Salmon, was narrowly elected with a 1,114 majority over Labour in a straight two-party fight in Dyfed-Powys, mid-Wales. “I am listening. We have lessons to learn,” said Salmon of the low turnout on his election.
The former Labour minister Jane Kennedy became the first Labour PCC when she was elected with 56% of the vote on the first count in Merseyside.
Early indications showed that the dismal turnout had opened up the opportunities for independents despite the lack of a free mailshot for candidates. A former detective, Martyn Underhill, unexpectedly topped the poll in the first round in Dorset, while Mick Thwaites, a former chief superintendent, was in a strong second place in Essex. Both went into a second round against Conservative opponents.
Fears that the far right would benefit from the low turnout however were dealt a strong blow when the English Defence League’s candidate in Bedfordshire, Kevin Carroll, was eliminated after a first round in which he secured 10% of the vote.
Jenny Watson, chair of the official watchdog, the Election Commission, said the low turnout was a concern for everyone who cared about democracy and confirmed that the watchdog would conduct an inquiry, reporting early next year.
“The government took a number of decisions about how to run these elections that we did not agree with,” said Watson. “But what is important now is that the right lessons are learned: we will talk to voters, candidates and returning officers to understand what worked and what didn’t. The commission is going to undertake a thorough review, and we will present our findings to parliament in early 2013.”
Labour insisted that the “dismal turnout” had not only been a shambles but had damaged the legitimacy of the new job and raised serious questions about their mandate.
The former home secretary, David Blunkett, said a 15% turnout meant the commissioners lacked legitimacy: “It is going to be very difficult for a police and crime commissioner. They now will not be able to say to their chief constable: ‘I have an overwhelming mandate, you’ll do as I tell you.’”
The new commissioners will face a tight timetable to submit a budget for their police force, set a figure for the police share of council tax bills and draw up a four-year strategic plan to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour all by a deadline of 31 January. Twelve of the new PCCs are facing short-term decisions over whether to confirm their “temporary chief constables” in their posts while several others are facing an urgent hunt for a new recruit.
Jon Collins of the Police Foundation thinktank said the low turnout would “raise inevitable questions about the legitimacy and credibility of the incoming commissioners”.
He said they must hit the ground running and demonstrate to the electorate they can make a real difference.
“All successful PCC candidates must recognise that the vast majority of people have not taken part in this election and ensure that they do everything possible once they are in office to engage the public in a meaningful debate about the policing of their local area.”
The home secretary, Theresa May, is to meet all the new PCCs in London on 3 December at a “welcome event” at the Home Office.
Article source: http://feeds.guardian.co.uk/~r/theguardian/uk/rss/~3/m_vy_rSHJ1c/police-commissioner-elections-lowest-turnout