Progressive police and crime commissioners: An opportunity for the centre-left


police, reform, UK politics

Author(s):  Rick Muir, Ian Loader
Published date:  14 Sep 2011

Next year voters in England and Wales are going to vote in new and constitutionally unprecedented elections.  They will be electing 41 Police and Crime Commissioners, one for each police force area. These will be powerful figures. Commissioners will be responsible for multi-million pound police budgets and for setting police priorities.

They will have a duty to work with other agencies to cut crime and will soon be key actors in local community safety politics. Following a defeat in the Lords earlier this year the Government offered further concessions to Lib Dem peers and the legislation now looks set to pass in time for elections in November 2012. It is time for the centre-left to wake up and engage fully and imaginatively with this prospect.

The Labour Party, Liberal Democrat peers and Liberty have lined up with serving and former police chiefs to oppose this reform. They think that no good – and much ill – will come of it.  They have raised genuine concerns about the risks of electing individuals to run the police – risks of politicizing policing and of subjecting minority groups to populist crackdowns on crime. But opposition to this measure has been defensive, reactionary and unimaginative. Critics have thrown in their lot with an exhausted status quo and resorted to lazy clichés about all this being ‘un-British’. In so doing, the centre-left has failed to grasp that, for all their limitations as a model of accountability, Commissioners might be a means of democratizing the police service – something that has long been, and should remain, a progressive cause. As the measure approaches the statute book, and elections loom ever nearer, an opportunity presents itself to shape this reform towards that very end.

This is a flagship Conservative policy. But it is also piece of constitutional reform, and like other constitutional reforms (devolution, elected mayors) the success or failure of this policy lies beyond the control of its - in this case Conservative - authors.  In fact, the impact of Commissioners on the ground is largely going to depend on the Labour Party.  

By Autumn 2012, public spending cuts will have started to bite. The economy may still be stagnating.   The Coalition government is likely to be so unpopular that it is hard to envisage Conservative Commissioners being elected anywhere outside a few English shires. The Labour Party – if it organizes itself – could sweep much of the board in these elections. The high-profile big city forces – Greater Manchester, Leicestershire, Merseyside, Northumbria, Nottinghamshire, South Wales, South Yorkshire, West Midlands and West Yorkshire - are all likely to see a Labour or some other centre-left figure emerge victorious. So too may Cleveland, Derbyshire, Essex, Gwent, Humberside, Lancashire, and Staffordshire.  The police map of England and Wales may be about to turn red.

Of course, this may not happen. We do not know what kinds of people are going to stand, or if the elections will shape up along conventional party lines. High profile individuals may come forward to stand as independents – ex-chief constables, chairs of disbanded police authorities, former MPs, business people, or celebrities.  We may yet end up with a volatile mix of the good, the bad and the ugly running the police, or with 41 police forces overseen by retired businessmen.  This in, our view, would be bad for the police and bad for British politics.  Police and Crime Commissioners will take-up well-paid, powerful roles that require incumbents with the skills to run a vital public service. Done well, this reform could do a great deal to build public trust in politics – it might even be a much needed instance of the ‘new politics’ that the Coalition is otherwise failing to deliver. To make this happen, the centre-left have got to start ‘owning’ this reform, shaping it in precisely these terms: as a means of extending and strengthening democracy. At the very least, Police Commissioners present Labour and other progressive opposition parties with the chance to demonstrate they have the capacity and vision to govern.

So what is to be done? In part, this is a matter of attracting and selecting quality candidates with the vision and skills to do what will be a tough, high-profile job. One also needs candidates who want to serve their locality while standing on a broader progressive ticket. All this, one should add, throws up some tricky – and increasingly urgent – issues about the selection process.  Political parties are not organized on police force boundaries. This makes the idea of imposing candidates from the centre all too tempting. But it may instead offer the chance to go about things in new ways, encouraging greater grass-roots involvement in candidate selection. This could include primaries, although these are expensive.  At the very least parties could relax their membership criteria so to encourage a wider range of supporters to come forward.

More importantly, an opportunity exists for the centre-left to develop and implement across large swathes of the country a progressive policy on crime, policing and disorder – and to make Police Commissioners a showcase a better politics of crime and policing. So what will a ‘manifesto’ for progressive Police and Crime Commissioners look like? We think it should look something like this:

Pledge to be responsible. Progressive Commissioners will not trample all over chief officers’ operational responsibility, sack chiefs willy-nilly, make silly promises they cannot keep, or resort to over-blown anti-crime rhetoric.  They will also work closely and cooperatively with the new Police and Crime Panels. In so doing, they will avert the risks of elected Commissioners that critics have rightly identified. This will be an attractive offer across the political spectrum.

Run an office for public engagement that listens to the experiences and concerns of ordinary people. This is a key part of the role. Progressive Commissioners will be a new and unusual type of democratic politician fitted to this constitutionally unique role. They will not simply stand for election and implement false, inflated promises – this is what critics fear. They will work instead to seek out the concerns of all – but especially among communities where crime impacts the most. They will ensure that public concerns are reflected in policing priorities – while remaining vigilant champions of the civil liberties of local minorities. When public demands cannot be met, Commissioners will manage expectations by being open and honest with people about what the police can and cannot achieve. This engagement will extend to listening to the concerns and ideas of rank and file police officers. They might devolve some of their budgets to the local level or allow parts of the police budget to be decided directly by the public, through participatory budgeting.

Protect local neighbourhood policing in the face of budget cuts. Neighbourhood policing will remain central to progressive policy to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.  Commissioners will work with the police to ensure that listening, locally responsive policing happens on the ground. They will protect the numbers of constables and PCSOs in neighbourhood police teams and re-deploy back office staff to increase the number of officers out on the beat.  They should make single officer patrolling the norm to increase the public visibility of frontline officers. They will develop neighbourhood policing further by enhancing its public engagement and problem-solving dimensions which are as yet under-developed. They will use their office – and their grant making powers – to galvanize civic action to reduce crime and tackle anti-social behaviour, as the police alone cannot foster and sustain sustaining safe communities.

Improve police responsiveness and citizen-focus. Progressive Commissioners should guarantee some clear minimum response times that the public should expect when they call 999 or non emergency numbers.  They should ensure that officers receive training to embed a culture of ‘citizen-focus’ in frontline policing to overcome high levels of service dissatisfaction among victims and witnesses.  

Hard-wire social justice into the work of the police. We know that people in the poorest areas are most likely to be victims of crime and are most likely to be afraid of crime. While neighbourhood policing teams should be maintained in all areas, greater resource should be deployed into those areas with the highest needs. 

Develop holistic crime reduction. Much of what impacts upon crime in localities lies beyond the control of any Police Commissioner. Progressive Commissioners know this and will not try to pretend otherwise. But they will work collaboratively and effectively with all other local agencies to put in place coordinated crime reduction strategies. This means working closely with the courts and probation to foster justice reinvestment (shifting funds from custody into community based alternatives) and reduce re-offending. It means developing effective triage services in police stations so that those with mental health problems or addictions can be referred to appropriate services to prevent them being continually cycled through the criminal justice system without the causes of their offending behaviour being addressed.  But it also means paying close attention to the impact of early years education, family support and employment on levels of crime.

Be open to evidence about what works. A lot is now known about what policing strategies can be effective in reducing crime – and what is a waste of public money. Progressive Commissioners will be open to this evidence and will take proper heed of it making decisions. They will use their office to make such evidence publicly available and ensure that it forms part of local debate about policing. This means developing productive working relations with local and central government, the inspectorate and the research community.  They should not be afraid to pilot innovative approaches to crime reduction and learn from mistakes.    

Take national responsibilities seriously. Progressive Commissioners will be focused on local crime and policing – that is their point. But they know that crime is a global problem that does not respect force boundaries. They will thus attend to local policing while keeping in mind the wider national picture – in respect of cross-border crime and terrorism. They will work effectively with and learn from Police and Crime Commissioners in other forces - and thereby maximise the benefits to be gained from a devolved policing system. Progressive Commissioners will be constructive players in national police forums.

We think these ideas offer the basis for a progressive and popular ‘offer’ to electors in November 2012. They provide a platform from which Labour and other progressive forces can govern – and not merely oppose – in the next four years, and thereby take a record of demonstrable success in a key public service to voters in 2015. This is a moment which should be seized.


Our people

Rick Muir, Associate Director for Public Service Reform

Ian Loader, Associate Fellow