A ballot-proof police force?
Last month I received a personal letter from the Home Secretary. It read:
I am pleased to offer you a place on the National Police Commissioners Selection Panel. An application was automatically submitted on your behalf on your eighteenth birthday.
Your job will be to scrutinise carefully every candidate for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner, and ensure that the one ultimately appointed is the most competent. Their job will be to produce local police and crime plans setting out the objectives of their force, to be generally responsible for its budget and to make crime and disorder reduction grants (naturally, I’m assuming you know what these are), alongside the other functions set out in Part 1 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011– you have read it, of course?
You will be joined on the Selection Panel by around 50 million other people, the vast majority of whom will not be familiar with these criteria, and exceptionally few of whom will ever meet any candidate face-to-face, let alone read all of the campaign literature.
September saw Parliament pass the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. From now on, police forces will be supervised by Police and Crime Commissioners elected by the public.
Now, I’m not entirely sure that this system is a good idea. Despite being an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes – not to mention having a soft spot for John Grisham books, the Hardy Boys, Tintin, 24 and Spooks – I can’t honestly claim to have sufficient knowledge of the way police forces are managed to discern the best candidate for their leadership.
The first election will happen in 2012, and it will be a genuine first: nobody knows what sort of people will stand; whether they’ll be aligned to political parties; whether they’ll be former police officers – who can tell how it will play out?
It is likely that the campaigns will take one of three forms:
i. The Apprentice boardroom: essentially a popularity contest in which the candidate who spouts the most convincing (albeit meaningless) buzzwords is elected. This sort of campaign will generate rhetoric such as, “I’ll put 110% into the job…”
ii. The political debate: candidates will be selected on the basis of their views on crime policy, ASBOs, community sentencing, police cautions. The difficulty here is that by trespassing on the territory of legislators, judges and the law itself, a police commissioner democratically elected for their opinions could become a challenge to any of these authorities.
iii. The competence assessment: the best thing that could happen is that the candidates will try to demonstrate how they would fulfil the job’s criteria, and be the best at performing its legal functions. There are, however, two issues here: firstly, a good old-fashioned interview-panel can assess competence just as tens of millions of voters – if not better. Such a panel would also be massively cheaper. The second problem is that the electorate wouldn’t have a clue how to weigh up different candidates, and would likely turn things into a popularity contest anyway.
In political science, the general rule when designing structures and institutions is to be ‘teleological’: form should follow function. It must be decided what an office is to do before it is decided how to fill it. We must ask ourselves why it is that a police commissioner should have to be elected.
Members of Parliament are elected because they make political and moral choices on our behalf, so it is as well that they should generally represent the opinions of the country. To take an example from the opposite end of the spectrum: teachers are not meant to exercise any real discretion – rather, they should be following a curriculum. They need to have very specific qualifications which are in fairly short supply. There is no conceivable reason to appoint teachers on the basis of a vote because they do not need to represent anybody’s views (indeed, they should refrain from bias) and there is no guarantee that the ‘lottery’ of elections would result in the most qualified and competent people getting the jobs.
Civil servants are not elected because they must be politically neutral, as must MI5, MI6, the armed forces and, indeed, the police service. I really do not want to find myself, in ten year’s time, chatting to friends about how “my police commissioner’s a Tory, but there’s a Labour force just a few minutes away.” That may be just a ‘slippery slope’ musing which never becomes reality. But we simply don’t know how this could turn out.