An open letter to Ms Vera Baird, the newly elected Police & Crime Commissioner for Northumbria
Dear Ms Baird,
Congratulations on your re-election. My wife and I were among those who voted, I on my part relishing not only the opportunity to put in place a barrister like yourself, with experience of government, but rather more gleefully the chance to vote Labour up here in the northernmost tip of England – Godzone, we call it – and stand a good chance of winning!
Sadly, my Spouse the Socialist spoiled her ballot paper, just as she did in the original contest when first you were elected. In 2012 it was her protest at being asked to vote for a system of police governance which she felt (and still feels) is unnecessary; this time she spoiled her paper in protest at the total lack of information, even down to the candidates’ identities.
No posted or hand-delivered information, nothing by way of announcements by parish or county council reached our ears. No statements from the competing candidates, no summary of your achievements and/or aims for the future came our way. Had we not heard a brief mention on Radio Four’s Today programme on the morning of the vote we would not have remembered to do our democratic duty, either.
Do not console or congratulate yourselves, you politicians, in the belief that the low turnout – 31 per cent across a giant police authority region stretching from Teesside to the Scottish border – was at least an improvement on the 16 per cent which voted in 2012. In my county, rural Northumberland where the police vote was the ONLY reason for turning out to vote, only 21 per cent bothered to cast a vote for anyone because of, I would contend, the almost total lack of publicity surrounding the election and any reiteration of the very reasons for the existence of a Police and Crime Commissioner.
I know that central government’s much criticised £2million spend on the original vote was drastically cut to a few thousand pounds this year. Even so, a simple handbill offering each candidate equal space plus picture to state his or her case could have been distributed via parish council noticeboards or as a pickup at doctors’ surgeries, libraries and even through willing shops, pubs and supermarkets. There is a sickness in this country which is far from confined to Police Commissioner elections but infects and threatens our democracy, from the tiniest village hall committee election through parish, town and county council polls all the way up to parliamentary elections and referendums: so-called ‘Voter Apathy’ is misnamed because the blame lies not with the electorate but with the powers that (would) be. Look at the unmitigated and unforgivable cockup in the north London borough of Barnet, that jewel in the Conservative crown, where hundreds of early morning voters – among them the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and his wife, Valerie – were turned away after 155 polling stations received incomplete voting registers.
The council, after initially suggesting that would-be voters in the London mayoral election could ‘come back and vote later’ – a suggestion that provoked fury and ridicule in equal measure – eventually put in place measures to allow those who had been barred an emergency proxy vote. And who is in charge of such vital democratic functions as proxy and postal voting in privatisation-loving Barnet? A company called Capita; what encouragement is there to participate when even democracy is put in the hands of an organisation with profit as its core activity?
Further down the chain, at village level, it is difficult to find a parish council in Northumbria that even bothers to hold elections, choosing instead to ‘invite, appoint or co-opt’ the latest respectable-looking middle class incomer on the grounds that ‘we can’t afford an election and no one else wants to do the job, anyway’. Little wonder that apathy is rife and democracy is dying.
And then we are subject to an almost secret PCC election, the object of which few understand and the date of which even fewer are aware. Truly, Ms Baird, I despair. Given the current gulf in trust between police and public it seems to me vital that a barrister with your experience in government is excellently placed to work with responsible law officers to keep our streets and villages safe.
For that reason, I am sharing this open letter to you with some thousands of readers of my columns displayed at www.voiceofthenorth.net. Should you care to respond I will happily make the same website available to you for reply.
You may choose to believe that a PCC election resulting in an endorsement by more than half of the pathetically small total turnout is some sort of satisfactory conclusion, despite the worryingly high proportion of more than 8,000 (possibly deliberately) spoiled ballot papers. I see trouble brewing.
When participation in democracy dips to the levels we routinely see today then rejecting the democratic way will breed dissent and ugly demonstrations.
And that becomes a police matter, Ms Police and Crime Commissioner. . .
DID YOU VOTE IN YOUR POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER ELECTION? IF NOT, WHY NOT? LEAVE YOUR COMMENT BELOW