Comment: Was the police commissioner election a failure of democracy?

First published in Opinion The Westmorland Gazette: Photograph of the Author by

Cumbria now has its first Police and Crime Commissioner. Retired head teacher Richard Rhodes was elected last week and will now be able to appoint and, if necessary, dismiss the chief constable.

He will also set the Cumbria Police force budget, will be responsible for setting the level of precept from council tax and will produce and update a police and crime plan for the area.

Mr Rhodes, who lives in Staveley-in-Cartmel, plans to create an Office of Public Engagement to react to public opinion and any crime concerns and is keen to ensure victims of crime receive adequate redress.

This sounds promising and it is to be hoped he can achieve his aims. We wish him well.

If new commissioners are to hold real power then one has to wonder why there was such a low turnout at the polls.

Only 16.3 per cent of Cumbria voters chose to vote - fairly typical of the national turnout.

It was the first election of its kind, of course, and perhaps there was a collective failure of the Government and candidates to fully explain the role of the new commissioners. Certainly a Westmorland Gazette web poll asking whether the creation of police commisisoners would make a difference to policing recorded a resounding 94 per cent of voters saying ‘no’.

So has there been a failure of democracy in some sense? The answer is no. In a democratic society people have the right to vote or not to vote. Those that chose to do so decided to elect Mr Rhodes, so he has a mandate.

People might say they did not vote because they did not believe commissioners were necessary. Yet the Govenment that introduced them was democratically elected.

And, in fact, South Lakeland recorded the highest voter turnout in the country at 23.78 per cent.

It is now a case of seeing if polilce commissioners make a tangible difference to how areas are policed and to people’s lives.

It that does not happen then the beauty of democracy is that commissioners - and the politicans who decided to create the roles - can face the political consequences at the next elections.

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