Well before it has launched one of Cameron’s most cherished policies – the planned move to elect police commissioners for all 41 police authorities in England and Wales – is looking like a very bad idea indeed and one that ultimately raises important questions about the practical limits of democracy.
On Radio 4′s ‘Today’ Nick Herbert, Minister for policing and criminal justice repeatedly refused to answer Evan Davis’s perfectly reasonable question about what would constitute a reasonable turnout at the elections in November and whether he would be happy with 15%, saying only that he wanted it to be as large as possible. Well, yes of course. Ministers are usually very happy to set targets for others but strangely reticent when it comes to setting any for themselves. It is bad news indeed if the minister is not privately confident of hitting a measly 15% turnout.
Then there is the question of costs. Nick Herbert was emphatic that the estimated cost of a state-funded mailshot at £25 – £35 million is too much for the government to afford at this time so candidates will NOT get one. Earth to Whitehall; policies that are unaffordable are, err, umm, unaffordable. Yet it’s not that spending on campaigning including mailshots isn’t allowed; earlier on the same programme Ann Barnes who is standing as an independent in Kent explained that the population she has to reach is 1.7 million, equivalent to over 17 parliamentary constituencies and the allowable expenses in the last six weeks alone are £228,ooo. This is on top of a £5,0000 deposit.
Cameron’s notion (also from ‘Today”) was apparently that, “Community leaders and pioneers of all sorts… [should stand]“. In practice, it means only those with the backing of a political machine and the army of free deliverers that brings with it. The only independents with much chance are those with serious financial backing.
Multi-millionaires are not normally ’community leaders’ in the usual sense so who might get such backing and in return for what? The precedent from the USA where many positions are elected that we would regard as administrative appointments – everything from county clerks to judges – is not good. The track record is that vested interests, even criminal ones, can buy privileged access to the system. Media magnates have a particular advantage. Incumbents with plum jobs have to keep those who will finance their re-election happy however unsavory they might be and even if it means bending the law – or driving a coach and horses through it. Although some voters will know what is going on there is no practical and affordable way of telling the majority, at least not in the face of organised disinformation. And when turnouts are very low, as Nick Herbert obviously expects but won’t admit, the opportunities for buying elections are that much the greater. If I were Murdoch I would regard this as the perfect opportunity to buy insurance against any further or future exposures.
The conclusion I draw is that democracy is not about voting as often as possible or for as many posts as possible. Elections should be arranged and financed in such a way that there is a level playing field that gives independents (and/or minor party candidates) a reasonable chance of ejecting incumbents. Inter alia, that means that cost must NOT be a significant factor. And there must be an effective exchange of information and opinion independent of the candidates where their relative merits and demerits can be freely discussed. The national media (increasingly supplemented by new media) provides this for Westminster elections but only weakly for local elections which is partly why there is so much ‘cross talk’ from national trends. But for police commissioners? I don’t see any suitable forum. As for who might regard £250k or so as a good investment wealthy but public-spirited citizens would be well down my list of likely candidates; top would be power-crazed media magnates and organised crime.