Melanie Phillips

18 January 2012

The policing hokey-cokey

Published in: Daily Mail

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Ever since the idea of elected police commissioners first surfaced from the then Conservative opposition, I have argued that this is a seriously bad idea. Its superficial attraction derives from the undeniable fact that the police in England and Wales have largely lost the plot, often abandoning the streets to thugs and villains and thus leaving people especially in the poorest areas effectively imprisoned inside their homes too terrified to go out.

Recognising correctly that this represented an endemic breakdown of the professional ethic of policing, the Tories decided that the way to tackle it was to hand control to local people through elected police commissioners, so that through them the police would be held accountable to public wishes. This was in accordance with the party’s thinking that ‘people power’ was the way to shrink the reach of the state, revive community networks and reconstitute civil society.

Although in general I am an enthusiastic supporter of this philosophy, I always thought that it should not be applied to the police. This is because it would run the risk of placing the police under political control. Elections, after all, are an intrinsically political process – and are invariably hijacked by political or vested interests of one kind or another.

The Tories believed that the remarkable success of Mayor Giuliani in transforming New York from a lawless into a law-abiding city proved that a locally accountable politician was the way to turn policing round. But this was to miss the point by a mile. The transformation of New York was down to the professional genius of the city’s then chief police officer, Bill Bratton, whose singular talents Giuliani – to his credit – promoted and endorsed. But in many areas, the fact that America’s police forces are under the thumb of local politicians has only helped foster corruption rather than public tranquillity.

In the UK, by contrast, the independence of the police from politics has been one of the bulwarks of liberty. Much of the reason why policing has become so demoralised is precisely because it has become politicised, with the police looking over their shoulders all the time at what politicians want them to do – and getting it badly wrong as a result. Police commissioners risked merely transferring that political control from Whitehall to local level.

The Tories brushed aside this concern on the naive grounds that the police commissioners would be ‘independent’. Yet the way things are shaping up, it looks as if they will be not independent at all but merely yet another set of party hacks. Indeed, a Guardian story today revealed that the LibDem grass-roots are furious that the party is not putting up candidates for police commissioner posts – because under the electoral system to be used the LibDems are unlikely to win any of the contests – and are being told to support independent candidates instead.  Party activists are calling this

‘an act of political lunacy’.

Oh dear. So much for the famous LibDem support for radical ‘pavement politics’ and people power.

The other two parties don’t even seem to be bothering to hide the politically partisan nature of these contests. An earlier Guardian piece last December revealed:

‘Labour’s national executive has asked local parties to go ahead with their selection of candidates to stand for the 41 commissioners’ jobs.

‘...The police minister, Nick Herbert, is reported to have summoned 41 backbench Mps from each area to a meeting and asked them to go and find Tory candidates willing to stand on their patch. There is even talk of the Conservatives holding primaries to find a suitable candidate but at a cost of £50,000 a go it is thought there are few local party associations willing to foot the bill.

 ‘...Labour are banking on the likelihood that they will win all the commissioner jobs in the north and across Wales. The Tories assume they will win those in the south of England. This leaves the few Midlands forces as the main battleground.’

But never fear, LibDems!  You can have your ‘independent’ cake and find you are actually eating a tray of political patisserie! For today’s story goes on:

 ‘In this situation the party’s “pick and choose” approach begins to make sense as it will, for example, allow them to join an cross-party alliance with local Conservatives to back independent candidates challenging Labour in the north. Similarly in the south of England Lib Dems will be able to enter into unofficial alliances with Labour to back independents fighting Tory candidates in the south.

‘That at least is the justification being put forward by some leading Lib Dems in local government. The official party position is that policing should not be treated as a “political football” and that a strong preference for independent candidates will help depoliticise the process.’

Ha! Cynical, or what?

The police will only be re-professionalised through proper leadership – and that in turn will only be restored when politics is taken out of policing. Introducing these commissioners, as we can see, will only put even more of it straight in.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie