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Comment: An election and post we don't need

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: November 08, 2012

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Next Thursday brings an election which will see one man or woman elevated to a position of significant power.

Devon and Cornwall's first Police and Crime Commissioner will be responsible for setting the peninsula's policing strategy, for setting and controlling the budget, and will have the authority to hire and fire the Chief Constable.

Supporters of the Government's policy – if you can find one – argue that police and crime commissioners will ensure there is true, local accountability for policing. They will say there will be more effective scrutiny of Chief Constables and the way they run their forces. They will say this is democracy in action.

Which is all well and good in theory. But in practice, next week's nationwide elections threaten to fall somewhere between a shambles and a disaster. It seems clear that many people neither understand nor care what this election is all about. There is little engagement or understanding of what the new role entails, who the candidates are or what they stand for. There has been no campaign to speak of, few people appear to have received any kind of election literature, and awareness among the electorate is so low as to be barely noticeable.

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Which all points to the likelihood of an extremely low turnout. Add in the large field of 10 candidates, and the inevitable split vote, and Devon and Cornwall's first Police and Crime Commissioner stands to be elected on the votes of a tiny percentage of the total electorate. Would that really be a mandate for such a powerful position? There are other inherent dangers as a result of this misguided, ham-fisted policy. Replacing the current structure, in which a Police Authority comprised of local councillors oversees an area force, with a directly-elected commissioner – bearing in mind that the three major parties are all fielding candidates in Devon and Cornwall – risks politicising policing.

One of Sir Robert Peel's principles of ethical policing was that the service should 'seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law'. Peel's reforms were introduced for good reason, and have served well. But what is there now to stop a commissioner, perhaps from the extreme fringes of the political spectrum, elected on a small and divided turnout, to launch a populist 'crackdown' on a minority group with the ballot box in mind? The answer is 'very little'. These are elections we do not want for a post we do not need.

Nevertheless, the election will go ahead and a commissioner will take office. So what to do? A vote for any candidate could be interpreted as an endorsement of the process and post.

Yet not voting, which it appears will be the case for the majority, won't help either. A spoiled paper? Futile perhaps, but at least a demonstration of dissatisfaction. As the organisers of what are, sadly, far better supported polls say, 'the choice is yours'.

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