On the shambles that was the Police and Crime Commissioner elections
I can’t say the earth moved for me in this election campaign. Looking at the horrifically low voter turnout and the number of deliberately spoilt ballot papers – or rather the social media chatter from people who said that they were going to deliberately spoil their ballot papers, the PCC elections were a sign all is not well with our democracy. The challenge for politicians is how to interpret those signs.
I’m not going to go into the full details of what was wrong about the PCC elections in general – simply because Milena Popova has pretty much covered most of it in her blogpost Let’s go spoil some ballots! - Thus I recommend reading that post.
What I want to look at here is how politicians and beyond are taking from these election results, and what happened locally in my neck of the woods in Cambridgeshire.
Or words to that effect for everyone that spoilt their ballot paper? Are we on track for the lowest turnout for an election in UK history? Depressing if we are, but given that elections that involve anything to do with politics – for example local government to trade union roles – are low, what does this say about the whole process of voting? While the beauty of casting a vote in a secret ballot is in its simplicity – especially in a first past the post model, is there a better method of seeking the consent of the people?
In my short time on Twitter (coming up to 2 years), this is the first time where I have seen people encouraging others to go out and spoil their ballot papers. My sense is that it won’t be the last either. What will politicians take from the significant and very public rise in the number of spoilt ballot papers? While the percentages may not sound high, the numbers – even on a very low turnout – do. When you hear that the number of spoilt ballot papers is measured in the thousands rather than the tens or hundreds, you know there’s something amiss.
I don’t blame the grassroots activists in political parties
They have to react to the draw that they are given. Being in a political party inevitably means having to make compromises and doing things you don’t necessarily like or agree with. I’m sure there were those in political parties that did not agree with a whole host of aspects of the PCC elections. Campaigning in darkest November for a start. Why would anyone want to have a conversation about politics, holding open their front door to canvassers and door knockers when it is freezing and dark outside? Why would anyone but the hardiest of political activist want to go out in the cold rain in the traffic-clogged streets to persuade people to vote in elections that no one has heard of? So fair play to those that did.
The blame for getting the timing basics all wrong lies in Westminster and Whitehall. Coalition ministers should never have given the green light for a November election – and as professional politicians they all should have known better. Parliament should never have given its consent either – whether by not debating with a following vote, or meekly passing through the legislation that allowed it. Given the amount of money spent versus the turnout, I would like to think that the Home Affairs Select Committee will want to call ministers to explain what happened – and in particular what they would have done differently knowing what they know now.
The infantilisation of politics in the general public’s world
Some of the attributed comments to politicians from all of the three main parties have been utterly depressing. What I’d like to see from senior politicians is an acknowledgement that the low turnout shoots to pieces the legitimacy any victor may claim – irrespective of party. I don’t want to hear politicians blaming the media as if the institution is some insurmountable barrier. I want them to see the bigger picture. Gloria De Piero – former TV presenter and now Labour MP started doing an interesting piece of work, very publicly asking why politicians are hated. In that interview, she separated out the difference between a free-thinking backbench MP and senior politicians bound by conventions of collective responsibility. Not wanting to be seen to be split, this leads to MPs talking in soundbites and lines to take – especially in the broadcast media.
“Well it’s not exactly advertised at the job centre”
That quotation was taken from De Piero’s report linked above. Locally in Cambridgeshire I kept tabs on who was being selected by the main three parties. But that’s what happens when you choose to keep tabs on your local political activists (of whom I’m incredibly grateful that there are enough of them on Twitter).
Having just picked up the results for Cambridgeshire, the (expected) winning candidate Sir Graham Bright for the Conservatives won with only 4.1% of first preference votes (out of all those eligible) and 5.5% of votes (first & second preferences) overall. That’s not a mandate by any means. Turnout was 15.75%. That means over 84% were completely unmoved by what was going on – or that not nearly enough effort was made to inform people that there was an election was going on.
I’ve not met Sir Graham, but the interaction between him and Richard Taylor, one of the very few people in Cambridgeshire to scrutinise in detail what was going on during campaigning, doesn’t fill me with confidence. In fact, none of the candidates filled me with enough confidence to overcome my huge doubts about the principle of having directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners – hence spoiling my ballot paper too. I did not want to legitimise what I felt was a flawed policy. Yet at the same time I wanted to make an active statement (beyond blogging or tweeting) about my viewpoint.
Party Politics is failing
…and the PCC elections provided evidence of more symptoms of this failure. In order to turn things around, senior politicians in my view need to acknowledge that it is failing and recognise that turning it around requires relinquishing power and control that, institutionally they’ve got used to having.
Interacting as I do with people who are members of several political parties – not just the big three, one of the biggest barriers anecdotally is selection processes. There’s something about selection processes that seems to squeeze out the independent free thinkers in favour of parachuted candidates and clones manufactured by party machines. Mark Ferguson’s post about the Labour selection process in Rotherham spoke volumes.
“Imagine being a member in a safe Labour constituency, with a retiring MP. Your best opportunity to influence Parliament comes a round only every 20/30 years by selecting the next Labour MP in an open ballot.
Recall that Dr Tony Wright said at the conference I was at a week ago that 1% of the population are members of a political party, but that 1% effectively decide who can and cannot get the chance to stand for election with a reasonable chance of getting elected. (See here under the sub-heading What of political parties?)
One line of questioning I’d be interested in political parties to look at is:
- Are you interested in party politics? (If so, why, if not why not?)
- What would politicians need to do differently to get you more interested in politics?
- What would political parties need to do differently as organisations in order for you to either become engaged and/or to join?
I don’t think any of the parties or organisations that are interested in politics are in any situation to say “This is what they need to do differently”. This is because as a body politic, a comprehensive co-ordinated and in-depth listening exercise has not yet been done. The results of that listening exercise would then inform who needs to make what changes. Is it a grassroots campaigning issue? Is it how politicians behave? Is it a problem with structures of political parties? Is it something about Westminster and Whitehall structures? Is it something exogenous to political institutions – i.e. the lobbying power of vested interests that skew politics away from the needs of ordinary people? Will there be differences due to things like geography (e.g. rural/urban, north/south), income, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, health etc?
Food for thought.