Left to right, top row: Sue Mountstevens (Avon & Somerset), Olly Martins (Beds), Sir Graham Bright (Cambs), John Dwyer (cheshire), Barry Coppinger (Cleveland), Richard Rhodes (Cumbria); second row: Alan Charles (Derbys), Tony Hogg (Devon & Cornwall), Martyn Underhill (Dorset), Ron Hogg (Durham), Christopher Salmon (Dyfed-Powys), Nick Alston (Essex), Martin Surl (Glos); third row: Tony Lloyd (Greater Manchester), Ian Johnston (Gwent), Simon Hayes (Hants), David lloyd (Herts), Matthew Grove (Humberside), Ann Barnes (Kent), Clive Grunshaw (lancs)...
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Malpas Cricket Club, on the outskirts of Newport in South Wales, is not especially famous in the annals of the game; nor is its red-brick pavilion. Yet it occupies a strange footnote in British political history. In November 2012, the government held an election here and nobody came.

The pavilion was being used as a local polling station: for 14 hours, council officials sat and waited for voters to turn up and cast their ballots for a police and crime commissioner. Not one appeared.

This extreme example became a symbol for what was seen as a pointless election for an official with no obvious purpose. Elsewhere, voters did turn up: a few of them. The turnout nationally was just over 15 per cent, the lowest ever recorded. That, however, was enough to install 41 new public servants, paid between £65,000 and £100,000 (depending on the size of the patch), to oversee the country’s constabularies, whereupon voters’ indifference rapidly turned to contempt.

Some of the commissioners soon gained a reputation for low-level malfeasance, starting with self-aggrandising interference. Within hours of Avon and Somerset’s commissioner being sworn in, the chief constable resigned after being told to reapply for his own job. Then came the allegations of greed as some newcomers tried to hold on to their old posts as well. Next was cronyism as allies, comrades and chums were handed well-paid jobs as deputies and assistants in what looked like overstaffed private offices. The image has stuck. There is no known case of get-out-of-jail-free cards being offered so speeding motorists can inform busybody officers “I’m a personal friend of the police and crime commissioner”. But it feels like only a matter of time. Public distaste appears to be matched by a sullen resentment from police of all ranks.

All this is happening in Britain, the country where foreigners, if not the locals, traditionally think the bobbies are wonderful, and under a government led by the Conservatives, the party that always supported the police. Whoever else she was upsetting, Margaret Thatcher made very sure she kept the coppers onside.

Left to right, top row: Sir Clive Loader (Leics), Alan Hardwick (Lincs), Jane Kennedy (Merseyside), Stephen Bett (Norfolk), Winston Roddick (N Wales), Julia Mulligan (N Yorks), Adam Simmonds (Northants); second row: Vera Baird (Northumbria), Paddy Tipping (Notts), Alun Michael (S Wales), Shaun Wright (S Yorks), Matthew Ellis (Staffs), Tim Passmore (Suffolk), Kevin Hurley (Surrey); third row: Katy Bourne (Sussex), Anthony Stansfeld (Thames Valley), Ronald Ball (Warks), Bill Longmore (W Mercia), Bob Jones (W Midlands), Mark Burns-Williamson (W Yorks), Angus Macpherson (Wilts)

David Cameron has invented a new office that meets no widely-perceived need and has earned him no political credit. To the initiates, police and crime commissioners are now known collectively as PCCs. To most of the nation, those initials are still more likely to mean either the Press Complaints Commission or the Parochial Church Council. And if Labour wins the next election, these PCCs may be booted out to become a less compelling historical footnote than the Malpas pavilion. What was the prime minister playing at? And is the whole business as big a cock-up as it looks?

In April 1993, the black teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death at a bus stop in a south London suburb, a killing whose only conceivable motive was racial and which remains – even though two men are finally in jail – substantially unresolved.

In October 2012, the Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign after swearing at a policeman guarding the gates of Downing Street, and allegedly calling him “a pleb”, a triviality that has turned into a cause célèbre. Sometime between these two dates the Conservative party fell out of love with the police.

The campaigning of Stephen Lawrence’s parents that exposed police racism

The Lawrence case eventually brought forth an official report accusing the Metropolitan Police of “institutional racism”. The media campaign that led to this was improbably spearheaded by that barometer of bourgeois opinion, the Daily Mail. And it came to a head when Labour was in power under Tony Blair, pursuing fierce law-and-order policies previously associated with the Tories.

In 2002, a young Conservative wannabe called Douglas Carswell published a paper entitled “Direct Democracy”, in which he put forward a series of fanciful-sounding ideas to transfer power to the voters. The Tories were then in the depths of despairing opposition; an idea produced by an unknown political aspirant at such a time has a single sperm’s chance of survival. Most of Carswell’s ideas – such as elected health executives and quasi-Californian ballot initiatives – duly withered. One, however, made it through to the 2010 manifesto and the statute book. The section was headed “elected sheriffs”. Carswell, now the MP for Clacton, accepts the allegation of paternity.

The role that has emerged is much narrower than Carswell wanted. His sheriffs would have been in charge of prosecution and probation as well. He is sorry too that his name never made it. “I used the term sheriff not to be American. It was actually an Anglo-Saxon office, the shire reeve.”

These modern sheriffs don’t march into the saloons carrying six-shooters. Indeed, they cannot interfere with the “operational independence” of the police at all; that’s the chief constable’s domain. In some respects, the PCCs have less power than the obscure bodies they replaced – the police authorities, a mélange of councillors and unelected worthies who rarely made ripples, never mind waves, but who did have a say in all senior appointments, something denied to their directly elected successors.

In effect, the PCCs operate as chairmen of the police forces with the chief constables as chief executives. They have two crucial duties, and one big, almost nuclear, weapon. They have to set out both an annual policing strategy and a budget. The weapon is that they can, with hardly any restrictions, fire the chief constable. This being a fun thing to do, quite a few have hardly been able to keep their fingers off the trigger.

The ‘plebgate’ scandal involves the MP Andrew Mitchell

There are 41 territorial police forces with PCCs (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different set-ups as do Britain’s smallest force, the City of London, and its biggest, the Metropolitan Police). In 15 months, 19 new chief constables have been appointed in the 41 forces and two more are imminent. Technically, no chief constable has been dismissed. And the figures are slightly distorted because the dying police authorities were barred from making new appointments, so there were several vacancies. Some incumbents took one look at the new set-up and wanted out. But a number of cases definitely involved what is known in football management as mutual consent. The most notorious case was in Gwent, the Welsh force where the new PCC, Ian Johnston (armed with his thundering mandate from eg Malpas Cricket Club) gave the incumbent chief, Carmel Napier, two options: resign or be fired.

On one level, Johnston and his fellow commissioners were a solution without a problem. Crime in Britain has fallen by almost a third in 20 years. No one has a definitive explanation for this. The most convincing involves better locks on cars and the collapse of the second-hand market in electronic goods. One reason can be ruled out absolutely: it has nothing to do with the politicians who line up to take the credit. The same pattern applies across the developed world, no matter what penal regime is in force, from Death Row-obsessed Texas to nicey-nicey Scandinavia. “In the 1990s fear of crime was consistently the Number one or 2 issue for British voters,” says Martin Innes, professor of police science at Cardiff University. “Now it’s more likely to be No 5 or 6.”

Yet elite confidence in the British police has declined after a variety of outrages and scandalettes, highlighted not just by the Lawrence case and Plebgate, but by the accusations of a cover-up of the 1989 Hillsborough football tragedy and the web of police-press cosiness laid bare by the Leveson Inquiry. Surveys suggest this has not caused a collapse of public support. But out of power, the Conservatives were chafing. They showed an uncharacteristic interest in civil liberties and began to see the police as the last unreformed public service: featherbedded and inward-looking, suffering from what the French call une deformation professionelle. There was a growing realisation that crime figures (despite the unarguable trend) were either being fiddled outright or distorted to meet irrational targets. And when the party returned to office, it did not this time exempt the police from budget cuts, far from it. If the big fear – terrorism – was involved, the police could emulate the security services and money was no object. Otherwise, no.

The government brought in an outsider, the intense and unbiddable Tom Winsor, as chief inspector of constabulary, and threatened the police with direct entry of senior officers, destroying the ancient tradition of rising through the ranks. And it plodded on, amid mass indifference, with its plan for PCCs.

Once all the votes were counted in November 2012 (which did not take long) a fairly rum collection of commissioners were elected to the four-year terms on offer: 16 Conservatives, 13 Labour and 12 Independents. (The Liberal Democrats, expecting a shellacking, largely sat out.) The 15 per cent of the electorate who did turn out in the cold often voted frivolously or vengefully, against all politicians. The highest-profile candidate, the former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, was beaten in Humberside. The Conservatives lost deep-blue Surrey to a zero-tolerance ex-cop.

Several policemen won; a few national politicians, mostly of the second or third division, did get in, but Warwickshire went to a former airline pilot and Lincolnshire to a former TV presenter who then got into a complete tangle when he suspended his acting chief constable, and was overruled in court. The Independent winner in Kent appointed a 17-year-old youth commissioner who turned out to have a very unfortunate tweeting history. Hertfordshire’s Tory wanted to get police uniforms sponsored and charge prisoners for their accommodation. Bedfordshire’s Labour man suggested closing police stations and instituting contact via Skype.

Even Carswell admits: “Bluntly, there’s a lot of dross, regardless of party.” One of the arguments advanced for the change was that women and ethnic minorities would fill more positions. Huh! There are more female chief constables. Of the 41 winners, just six were women. Minorities: nil.

The biggest force involved, West Midlands (2.8m people, 7,571 police) found itself answerable to a relatively known quantity: Bob Jones, a Labour councillor in Wolverhampton for 33 years who had served on the police authority for most of that time. Jones is short and bearded; he looks like a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (he was actually one of its directors), but not like either a copper or a man on £100,000 a year. He has kept faith with the chief constable he inherited, but has insisted on halting privatisation of aspects of policing and demanded adherence to the freedom of information law. To my eyes, as I sat in on a meeting with senior officers, the relationship seemed appropriately businesslike. He might be a poster boy for how the system should work, except that he happens to be against it.

He saw little wrong with the old police authorities: “If you got rid of a chief constable before, it would have been a decision made by Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat councillors. You had a fair amount of political cover. Now it can be attributed to an individual. It’s a job for a particular sort of megalomaniac, but perhaps I’m more aware of it than some of my colleagues. Most of them think they are the voice of the community. I see my job as making sure the community has a voice,” Jones says.

Standing tall: the police’s image has seen better days

“I think the police have reformed quite successfully in recent years. We’ve got 22 suspended officers and 21 we’ve got rid of. The bulk of the information against them has come from other police officers. It’s a different attitude. There are still issues that need to be addressed. Whether the PCC is the best person to do it is another question. If you’re fiddling the crime figures, who’s got the incentive to do that? The person running for re-election. And you lose the outside perspective. I’m in a policing bubble from eight in the morning till late at night.”

Ian Johnston of Gwent (pop, 560,000; police, 1,273; salary, £70,000), in contrast, is big, bluff, a bit overwhelming. He looks like a senior policeman which is exactly what he was, a chief superintendent in the force for which he is now responsible. And not necessarily the Mr Nice of an interrogation team.

Elected as an Independent, he was in trouble early on for appointing an old colleague as his £52,000-a-year deputy. “I got some crap over that,” he says. “He’s turned out to be an inspired choice.” However, that was nothing to the crap that flew, six months after Johnston’s appointment, when the chief constable received her ultimatum. One local MP, Paul Flynn, called Johnston “a vindictive bully” in the Commons.

Johnston had left the force as a serving policeman before Carmel Napier arrived and so hardly knew her before he became her boss. He denies being a bully: “I was really hoping things could go better.” And, reading the evidence both gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee, one senses Napier had some difficulty grasping that the rules of the game had changed, which is a bit of a drawback in a chief constable.

Despite all the ordure, Johnston is an enthusiast for his job: “It’s making the process a lot swifter. There are some incredible ways to make things happen. I discovered a pot of £70,000 from found property, never reclaimed. I put the money into community initiatives: Friday Night Clubs and street pastors. If that had gone to a police authority, discussion would just have gone round and round.”

But Napier was hardly out of line with her peers if she hated the new regime. As with many of the chief-constable vacancies elsewhere, there was only one applicant for her job: her deputy. Possibly outside candidates sensed a carve-up, and in any case a quirk in the pension scheme has made promotion to the highest ranks less attractive. But also there must be a widespread feeling that the embuggerance-level at the top is just too ghastly. Barring outrages, the newly-appointed chiefs are presumably safe until November 2016 – it would be hard for a PCC to remove a second incumbent. But what happens after the next elections?

Sir Hugh Orde, the former head of the Northern Ireland police and now president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), is diplomatic about the new regime: “Cops are pretty pragmatic people. They’re making the system work.” (Though one suspects he might insert an adjective or two in private.) Sir Hugh does see pluses: “One of the strengths of the PCCs is the ‘and crime’ bit in their title. They’ve got broader authority to bang heads together at a local level.” The problem for him is the relationship at the top, the right kind of empathetic distance between commissioner and chief. “It can be too combative or it can be too close. There’s a greater risk of extremes. When I had a board of 19 in Northern Ireland we had some very forceful debates but, outside the extremes, normally common sense would prevail.”

Dr Tim Brain, the erudite former chief constable of Gloucestershire, now an academic and writer, confirmed that the police really do dislike the change. “But it’s like a bereavement cycle. You go through all the stages and eventually you get to acceptance.” Is the system working? “It’s working, but it’s not yet a success.”

Michael Levi, professor of criminology at Cardiff University, thinks the focus on what the people want is obscuring the toughest challenges of 21st-century policing, those involving transnational corruption and money laundering: “It is almost like imposing a Merrie England – and Wales – image on a complex postmodern economy.”

Douglas Carswell, however, is still relishing fatherhood. He is not too worried about the dud commissioners: “They’ll be one-term candidates. Some of the others are starting to be quite innovative and do some really thoughtful and intelligent things.” What about all the semi-sackings? “Good. I think for too long the country has been policed by ACPO.” And the voter apathy? “Voters take the London mayoral elections seriously. I think people will take the next set of PCC elections seriously.”

I spent a day with Bob Jones, attending meetings of unremitting worthiness and dullness about youth offenders and domestic violence – meetings that would bore any copper rigid. I felt, despite Jones’s own objections, that a conscientious commissioner could be a real boon to a sensible chief constable in channelling public opinion.

What I couldn’t see is how this could work as a long-term outpost of British democracy. It is one thing giving control to a multi-issue figure such as the mayor of London, for whom crime is just one part of the portfolio. But the non-London police areas cover several local jurisdictions, and having regular elections solely devoted to crime seems like a recipe for constant mayhem and mischief.

Then I read an article by two former Labour home secretaries, Charles Clarke and Alan Johnson, prime proponents of the lock-’em-up anti-libertarianism that characterised the approach to this subject in the Blair-Brown years. They demanded the abolition of PCCs “to remove party politics from the police service” and the merging of police forces so that the current 43 go down to something between 15 and 18 “in an organic way that respects local communities”, whatever that means.

I love it when party politicians rail against party politics. What I think they meant is that they want to go back to the days when they gave all the orders, only this time with even greater control, 15 chief constables being more easily cowed than 43. I felt a surge of affection for the PCCs, warts and all. At least they offer a slim hope of something fresh instead of Labour’s reactionary cynicism. Dammit, next time I might even vote.

To comment, please email magazineletters@ft.com

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article