22 Oct 2012

‘Extraordinary’ elections for police and crime commissioners

This is the most extraordinary set of elections in this country for many a year. For the first time ever, we’re seeing a set of polls based around one single policy area – law and order.

Even now, after the close of nominations on Friday, they’ve aroused very little interest. The Electoral Reform Society recently forecast a turnout of 18.5 per cent (a strangely precise figure), though many people in politics think it could be a lot worse.

My estimate a few months ago was 20 per cent, and I’m sticking with that. (Turnout should be boosted by by-elections on the same day in three areas on the same day – Corby, Manchester Central, and Cardiff South & Penarth – and a mayoral election in the City of Bristol).

Elections take place in the 37 police areas in England, outside London (where Boris Johnson fills a similar oversight role to that envisaged for the PCCs), and the four police areas in Wales, so 41 in all. In the case of England most of these cover a single county, though some involve a wider patch, such as Devon and Cornwall (two counties), and Thames Valley (three counties covering 25 parliamentary seats).

The government had hoped that the election would attract a wide range of high-powered and reputable figures to contest the elections, either as party nominees or as independents, but that’s not really happened. Theresa May paraded the former Iraq war hero Col Tim Collins as prospective Tory candidate at the 2011 party conference, but he fell by the wayside.

Another big name, the Falklands war hero Simon Weston. was found to be disqualified by the fact he had a minor conviction – having been caught in a stolen car when he was 14 in the mid-70s.

So the elections will take place pretty much along party lines, with the Conservatives and Labour taking part in every contest.  We won’t have the full list of candidates until Tuesday, but at the time of writing it looks as if the Liberal Democrats will be contesting only 22 of the areas, the same number as UKIP.  The Liberal Democrats aren’t fighting a single seat in Wales.  Nor are Plaid Cymru. Both parties could be taking a risk in not fighting everywhere – it’s not wise to let your supporters get into the habit of voting for someone else.

Eleven former MPs are standing.  Seven of them are Labour, all former ministers: John Prescott (Humberside); Alun Michael, the former Welsh First Minister (South Wales); Tony Lloyd (Greater Manchester); Jane Kennedy (Merseyside); Vera Baird (Northumbria); Paddy Tipping (Nottinghamshire) and James Plaskitt (Warwickshire); and there’s one former Labour MEP, Simon Murphy (West Mercia).

Four former Tory MPs are fighting the elections. Michael Mates (at the age of 78, in Hampshire) and Sir Graham Bright (Cambridgeshire) are standing as Conservatives. Rod Richards (Dyfed Powis) and Walter Sweeney (Humberside) are both standing as independents.

A few former policemen have entered the fray. These include Ron Hogg, the former deputy chief constable of Cleveland, who is standing for Labour in Durham; Mick Thwaites is an independent in Essex, where he served as a superintendent; and Martyn Underhill an independent in Dorset, where he was once a detective chief inspector.

And there are a few ex-military people. These include perhaps the most high-powered Conservative candidate, the former air chief narshall, Sir Clive Loader, in Leicestershire, who impressed me at a fringe meeting on the PCC elections at the Conservative conference. In Devon and Cornwall the Tory candidate is former local air commodore Tony Hogg

As for the rest, it’s largely a mixture of local councillors and members of the old police authorities. These include Ann Barnes, a JP who has chaired the police authority in Kent for the past six years, and must be one of the independents most likely to win.  But independents are at a severe disadvantage without the support of party organisations, election know-how, and volunteers.  Independents feel they also face a disadvantage in the broadcasting rules, which for both the BBC and the commercial sector favour the existing parties.

Most attention is likely to be focused on Humberside, where the former deputy prime minister, Lord (John) Prescott, is standing for Labour, against Matthew Grove. Also standing here as an independent is Walter Sweeney, the former Conservative MP for Vale of Glamorgan, whom grove beat for the Tory nomination. Although the Tories got more votes than Labour on Humberside in 2101, the sense I’m getting from Labour is that Prescott’s strongest challenger could be the UKIP candidate, the Yorkshire and Humberside MEP for North, Godfrey Bloom, a colourful and controversial character.

So who is likely to win, and where?

It’s tricky, because it’s not a first past the post election, but uses the supplementary vote system where people mark their first and second choices – the system used to choose the mayor of London and other mayors. If one simply add up the votes each party got at the 2010 general election, the Labour should be pretty confident of winning these areas: Nottinghamshire (Paddy Tipping), North Wales (Tal Michael), West Midlands (Bob Jones), West Yorkshire (Mark Burns-Williamson), Cleveland (Ken Lupton), Greater Manchester (Tony Lloyd), Gwent (Hamish Sandison), South Yorkshire (Shaun Wright), South Wales (Alun Michael), Northumbria (Vera Baird), Durham (Ron Hogg) and Merseyside (Jane Kennedy).

Although the Tories came top in most of the police areas in 2010, it’s a lot harder to be confident about Conservative victories – because of the decline in Tory popularity since the last election, and the supplementary vote system. Surrey, where Julie Iles is the Tory nominee, is really the only area which should be cast-iron Conservative.

The Liberal Democrats topped the poll in only one of the 41 areas in 2010 – Avon and Somerset – but I don’t expect them to win this or any other of these contests. Labour should win the most contests, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the low turnout causes one or two upsets with success for minor parties or independents.

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