Even without the final results it’s not too early to say that the turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioners has been horribly horribly low. Just a few examples: 16:09% in Nottinghamshire, 19.58% in Avon & Somerset, 19:48% in Humberside but these levels also mask areas of even lower engagement in some places: 11% in Coventry, 10.3% in Epping, 15.65% in Hull, 15% in North Devon. The list does and will go on.
The Electoral Reform Society predicted levels like this earlier in the year but could not sway the Government with respect to either their funding of information or timing of the election – a decision which I personally think shows very little respect for our democratic process.
I’ll be interested to hear whether the Lancashire or South Yorkshire numbers are better given the real commitment of both these Police Authority teams made to get the vote out but in turnout terms no-one can be happy with the degree of voter engagement.
The reasons for this will be complex. Overall we are seeing a general decline in democratic participation and engagement with politics. More acutely for this election the public clearly feel uninformed about both the post and the candidate choices. The mainstream media have been more preoccupied with the US election than this one. Local media has shrunk in many places to the point of irrelevance, which has not helped raise the level of debate about the electoral process. Online the discussion is still fragmented and no candidate ran a really strong social media campaign – though many at least made good efforts. I think there has been a real rejection of party politics and a desire to see independent candidates (making the setting of the deposit at £5000 rather than £500 perverse at best). There is another factor I think in play here which is that the little that people have heard about this election over time has been concentrated on resistance to the post from the Police themselves – who would you rather trust a Policeman or a Politician?
People have been asked to vote for something they didn’t want and for people who they don’t know – can we really be surprised at the turnout? The question is what are we going to do about?
Our choices: We can do an old style political party based post game chat amongst the traditional media – perhaps with some braying in the House of Commons – or we can try and use this as an opportunity to really address the issue.
I believe that if we are going to ‘fix’ politics then we need to start to build a radically different relationship between Citizen and State; one which is more open, networked, agile and digital. Not direct democracy but direct representation – where we can feel a connection to the people representing us and as a result take more responsibility for what happens in our communities.
Police and Crime Commissioners need to make their first priority in post the creation of a meaningful democratic relationship with their constituents. Not one which is mediated through consultation, engagement and PR but one which transforms these functions into something that makes them and this post real to the public.
I have met many of the PCC candidates and Officers who will be supporting them over the last year and there is a huge appetite amongst them to serve their communities in the best possible way. However it will take real courage to seize the opportunity to break with the political pattern and go back to their electorate and really introduce themselves. Arranged marriages can and do work – but it takes effort, respect and patience on both sides. I really hope the new PCCs prioritise this relationship building and start by owning and acknowledging the low turnout and the signal that the public has sent them.
The alternative is that we continue as we are and as @demsoc says we miss the opportunity for democratic reform for the next 10 years. Do we really think we can or should wait that long to fix this?