Public officials, even retired ones, should not as a general rule attempt to undermine democracy. Imagine if, for example, a permanent secretary in the Home Office took to the airwaves to persuade the public to sit on their hands in a general election, in the hope that a low turnout would remove legitimacy from the process and let civil servants get on with their jobs without bothersome interference from ministers.
That is pretty much what Lord Blair, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is now doing. Earlier this week, he said that he hoped people would not bother to vote in the first police commissioner elections on 15 November — in the hope that mass abstention would fatally undermine the process. His argument against the elections is disingenuous: he claims that the constituencies are too big, and that it is impossible for one person to represent Slough as well as Oxfordshire. But it’s not hard to guess his real reason: he loathes the idea of the public having a say in how the police prioritise their work.
Ian Blair perfectly embodies what has gone wrong with policing in England. He is marinated in political correctness. As head of Surrey Police, he would write articles worrying about how police have not ‘thought through the requirements of modernity’ which he defined in terms of New Labour platitudes. As head of London’s police, he spent thousands changing its logo from ‘Working for a safer London’ to ‘Working together for a safer London’. Now retired and ennobled, he sees these new commissioners as a threat to what policing has become.
His call for a boycott comes after indications that only a fifth of eligible voters will take part in the elections. They were supposed to take place on the same day as local elections, but the Liberal Democrats vetoed this — thinking that a focus on law and order would disadvantage their council candidates. Even this extra time has not improved the unimpressive candidate list. But the adverts themselves are a step in the right direction, focusing on theft and muggings — rather than speeding motorists, or people being rude about Scots. And there are some impressive candidates, some cunningly disguised under unwelcome party political rosettes.
It is, alas, true that the Labour years left the police with literally hundreds of new crimes to pursue. A while ago, the police ‘investigated’ this magazine after a campaign group took exception to the way one of our columnists referred to an imbroglio in the Middle East. It is understandable why an officer would take up such a mission: reading The Spectator is, of course, a more agreeable way to spend an afternoon than investigating a burglary. Officers themselves are not to blame: the Labour years placed police under obligation to investigate what people say, as well as what they do. This is a deeply menacing development in any free country. But until such laws are repealed, police time will keep being wasted in such ways.
Yet it is up to the police how much resources they put into various crimes — and this is exactly why police commissioner elections are taking place. The job of the elected commissioners will not be to poke their noses into criminal inquiries or into the day-to-day running of the local constabulary. Their purpose is to ensure that the police are set priorities that match the concerns of the public whom they are supposed to serve. A police officer who sits on the M6 catching motorists doing 85mph may recover his day’s salary in fines, but will he have earned it? That is what the new commissioners will decide. Some police chiefs might sneer at this concept, but they should remember whom they work for.
It is far too easy for a police force left to its own devices to concentrate on minor offenders or even non-offenders — to chalk up a number of offences and ‘solved’ investigations, the better to hit a certain target and give the illusion of success thanks to a computer spreadsheet. An anonymous police officer wrote in The Spectator last year about how these targets had utterly corrupted his job, and were inimical to the oath that he made to the Queen. Even this oath was changed by New Labour to incorporate ‘human rights’ and giving ‘equal respect to all people’ — as if protecting the public from crime were an afterthought.
Several mistakes have been made in these elections. Setting the deposit at £5,000 — with a campaign that costs up to ten times as much — has deterred highly qualified independent candidates. Too many of the declared candidates are uninspiring councillors, failed MPs or — without wishing to name John Prescott— washed-up politicians in search of a sinecure. The salaries of commissioners — up to £100,000 — are needlessly high. Why are they being paid more than MPs?
All this being so, the idea of giving us the chance to elect police commissioners is a radical agenda that reflects well on its author, Nick Herbert, the former Home Office minister. Anyone who believes in better policing should want to support it. Lord Blair would have us believe that every abstention is, in fact, a vote for him. David Cameron ought to thank his views on policing. There can be no greater spur to action.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012