Choosing Political Systems

What do the results of:

  • Mayoral Referenda earlier this year that rejected the concept of mayors in all places asked other than Bristol
  • The Referendum yesterday in Hartlepool  that voted to get rid of their elected mayor in favour of a committee system.
  • The low turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections yesterday (In Cleveland – where there have been problems with the Police Authority – it was a magnificent 14.7%)

have in common?

They all reflect a rejection of figure-head politics in favour of a representative politics. A rejection I welcome.

In America they elect a President, their state governors and numerous others including sheriffs and even, in some areas I am told, dog catchers.

In Britain we elect National Parliaments and Local Councils.  Those Parliaments and Councils then set up structures to manage services that are managed nationally (economy, defence, foreign affairs etc.) or managed locally (policing, social services, education, transport etc.).

Electing figure-heads is divisive – there are petitions in some states in America asking to secede from the USA following the recent Presidential Election – they hate Obama so much.  Even with our rotten election system there is some diversity in our Parliaments and in most of our Councils – most views are at least represented.

My old police authority committee had councillors on it drawn from all parts of the force area and representing most mainstream political views.  Our new police figurehead is a political nominee inevitably elected given the political balance of the force area.  She is supported by 56% of those who voted (about 9% of those eligible to vote).  This represents a drastic reduction in political diversity in an area that is sharply divided between rural areas and urban areas – each of which has distinct policing needs that must be balanced.  With the old police authority we could believe that was possible.

The home secretary says that “next time” turnout will be better because people will stand on their record.  Unless the commissioners breakaway as independents they need to keep sweet with their party selection committees – if they don’t at least partly toe the party line, they will run into reselection problems.  Party selection committees do not take an oath of impartiality – nor should they, they are political parties – but they should not be so directly involved in running the police!

I don’t need to know who is on the Police Committee any more than I need to know who is on the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee.  I have representatives who are obliged to pass on my reasonable concerns (even if they politically disagree).  I can however look up who is on these committees if I wish to contact them directly.  (It is strange how the supporters of these stupid PCC elections say that election leaflets are not required because we can “look the candidates up on the internet”, but we are incapable of looking up the Police Authority on the same internet.)

These representatives from a wide range of political views (in most Parliaments and Councils) hold the committees to account.  Hopefully they are sufficiently informed and involved (compared to the average voter) that they can do this reasonably efficiently. I note that it has recently been reported that the Government’s idea of making lots of spending data available online so that “armchair auditors” could challenge spending seems to have failed (ref BBC News 9 November 2012) and the Public Accounts Committee etc. seem to be doing a better job that Jo Public.

If we believed in figure-heads we would surely also be looking to elect other commissioners to run other public services – elect enough and you could do away with our councils (Council tax would just be a whole lot of precepts determined by a vast variety of commissioners).  Who would want to be a “Rubbish Commissioner”?

But we don’t, we believe in a system of MPs and Councillors.  They are elected by a poor system and some of them are flawed, but the damage that a single “wrong un” can do is limited.  If a figure-head is a “wrong un”, they can do massive damage.  Councillors (and even MPs) are sufficiently anonymous that we do not get many prima donnas.  Unfortunately that is unlikely to be the case with Commissioners.   The Home Secretary says that we will grow to value these commissars once they have put themselves about a bit and we know them. We now barely know our MPs (covering a single constituency) so what is the likelihood of knowing a commissioner covering in my case 16 constituencies and 2000 square miles?  Remote, unless the commissioner is a publicity hungry monster who spends huge amounts of their time on self-publicity rather than doing their job.  Not the sort of person I want running the police.

I want the police to maintain the Queen’s Peace not the Commissioner’s Peace (the colour of which depends on which side you are of a force boundary).

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