I’m not in to party politics and I’m certainly not a signed up member of the Conservative Party but this event represented a genuinely interesting political experiment: rather than restricting a ballot on who the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner candidate for the West Midlands should be to registered members, anyone could vote. All you had to do was be a registered as a voter in the region and register to attend in advance. This event took place at the Erdington Conservative club and was the first of four conservative Open Primaries currently being held across the West Midlands.
Now for those not in the know (as far as I can tell the vast majority of the population who, unlike me, don’t have a job that requires them to research the topic) Police and Crime Commissioners are a brand new exciting thing that will come into existence this November. Each police force will have their own democratically elected PCC who will have a series of specific powers, including setting a five year plan for the force, which could result in significant changes to the aims, emphasis and delivery of police services in their individual regions. Essentially the PCC will entirely replace the current system of Local Police Authorities.
There has been much to-ing and fro-ing regarding the pros and cons of creating PCCs. Supporters argue that they represent a much more democratic and accountable approach to policing and will force the police to respond to the public’s concerns, as well as being a more effective means of scrutinizing police spending. Those against the idea refer to how it may politicize policing priorities, potentially threaten cross regional delivery of police services and, with the position’s average £100,000 a year recommended salary, represent another tier of bloated bureaucracy of ‘jobs for the boys’ style pointlessness. However, regardless of where you stand it is happening and, curiously, unlike the Mayoral system, the general public don’t get the chance to vote in a referendum on the matter.
But back to the Erdington Open Primary. Aside from an ill-fated conservative party BBQ my dad organized when I was about 9 this was actually my first experience of a local party event, and I was impressed. The candidates had already been whittled down to two: Joe Tildesley (http://topofthecops.com/2012/04/24/candidate-statement-of-joe-tildesley/) and Matt Bennett (http://topofthecops.com/2012/06/12/candidate-statement-of-matt-bennett/). Matt Bennett went on first, did his speech and answered a diverse range of questions, then Joe Tildesley came on and did the same. The venue was packed full and the post speeches Q&A rounds were lively and thought provoking.
Most surprisingly of all I found that I was actually quite impressed by the candidates themselves. Despite the fact that I have met a fair few entirely pleasant politicians now, for some reason I’m always still slightly surprised when they turn out to be genuinely decent human beings. These two, whether I entirely agreed with all their policy points or not, certainly seem to care deeply about the communities they are battling it out to represent.
Their speeches, however, contained the kind of vague promises you’d expect from such an occasion ‘I’ll be tough on crime’, ‘let’s put victims and witnesses first’, ‘I want to outsource backroom functions and add more visible police’. The kind of general ideas that make me want to shout ‘But, specifically, what would you DO?’.
Joe Tildesley, in fairness, had a very valid response to a question on that theme posed by another audience member – he can’t answer the specifics yet because PCC candidates aren’t allowed to view the police force finances. That’s right, PCC candidates are currently having to come up with policies and promises without the slightest inclination as to the regional force’s financial situation…unless they happen to already be on the local police authority and thus privy to this restricted information that is. I hope this is an issue that will be swiftly resolved because, let’s be honest, what’s the point of voting for someone if they themselves have no idea if their ideas are feasible or not.
And that was that. Speeches, questions and balloting over the event closed. In my (unfortunately long) wait at Erdington station I took some time to reflect on the evenings proceedings. The event wasn’t perfect. The format of candidates doing their speeches and Q&A sessions entirely separately to each other was unnecessarily long winded, especially given that many of the questions posed in the separate rounds were very similar (a one round panel like approach to the Q&A would probably have sped things up a bit). Likewise, despite the attempt to get more general members of the public in, the audience seemed largely dominated by conservative party members.
That said I actually really enjoyed the event and really welcomed the opportunity to get involved at this early stage. There are still another couple of Open Primaries coming up and I would genuinely recommend giving it a go. It’s not often enough that political parties open up their doors to politically engaged but unaffiliated members of the public and I believe that this is an approach that should be encouraged. (For details of the next primaries see here:http://www.birminghamconservatives.org.uk/police-commissioner-elections).
I really do wish both candidates the best of luck and will be keeping an eye out for any up coming Labour PCC events featuring their candidate Bob Jones and his running mate for Deputy PCC, Yvonne Mosquito, as well as events featuring Lib Dem and any Independent/other candidates. So far the only events I’ve clocked are party member only, an ethos I really do plead with all candidates, regardless of party, to move away form in the coming months. Policing and crime are sensitive issues that affect and inspire passionate debate in everyone, regardless of their political affiliation.
Right now less than a handful of my friends and colleagues have heard of PCCs. In Birmingham this year’s local elections and Mayoral referendum achieved just a 29% turnout. If we want the citizens of the West Midlands, and indeed the nation as a whole, to turn out to vote in numbers that represent anything like a democratic mandate in the stand alone PCC election in November parties need to get engaging, now. The Conservatives have made a welcome start with their Open Primaries initiative. Now we need all interested parties to get out of their comfort zones and start communicating with the public.
The same goes for any members of the general public who might be reading this. There are probably going to be lots of community awareness meetings coming up over the coming months, why not go and get involved? You never know, like I was surprised to find, you might just like it.
For more information on PCCs check out the Home Office Website:
or the PCC specific website: http://www.policecrimecommissioner.co.uk/
And for the latest PCC news: Top of the Cops http://topofthecops.com/