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Sometimes politics really does just get in the way of the job

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 29, 2012

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Now the arguments over the low turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections are dying down, Martin Hesp wonders if they really did represent a bad day for democracy.

The fall-out following the lacklustre no-show that marked this nation's entry into political policing may be fading, but I cannot get one bleak image out of my mind because, to me, it spoke volumes about what a waste of time and money the police and crime commissioner elections were.

The image features a village hall high in West Somerset's Brendon Hills servicing a community of 79 voters. A student I know had taken time off to earn a few bob helping to man the village polling station for the PCC elections. I do not know the final count in that parish, but I did learn that by the end of the afternoon only five people had turned out.

The student and his colleague were being paid more than £350 for sitting there all day – then there was the cost of hiring the hall, collecting and collating the voting slips, and so on…

At the time I claimed on Twitter what a disgraceful waste of money the election had been in a belt-tightening era when every penny spent by any public body needed scrutinising – and hundreds of people seemed to agree.

But after a week my anger over the flagrant misuse of public funds has been overtaken by a more profound unease summed up in a single word: politicisation. As a journalist I've been a paid observer of grassroots democracy for many years, and even took part it in at a humble parish council level for 20 years – and I have never understood the eagerness with which people drag party politics into the business of civic management; a view echoed last week when many areas voted for independent, non-party police commissioners.

What astonishes me is the politicians, commentators and newspaper columnists who, because of ultra-low-turnouts, are now manning the wordy-barricades to cast dire warnings over the future of democracy in what they say is a country of "voter disengagement".

The argument goes that we've become spoiled. The country seems to more or less work OK, so we've turned into political couch-potatoes and become mentally bloated and lazy when it comes to keeping an eye on those manning the tiller.

This, at least, is the basis for the more measured, argument bandied about a week after the PCC elections – but in the immediate aftermath when figures started showing the elections were an absolute flop voter-wise, people at 10 Downing Street immediately blamed journalists for not giving it more preliminary coverage.

To which my knee-jerk reaction would be – don't shoot the messenger.

The politicians probably did have a point – we know the media is very London-centric and that there were no PCC elections in the capital city. That same media, in turn, was quick to turn on the prime minister – pointing out David Cameron is all too keen to blitzkrieg us with "big ideas" which he then often fails to back.

Now the dust has settled a bit and both politicians and political media have turned on the only other source of possible blame – by which I mean us… the lazy couch-potato classes who can't be bothered to haul ourselves to the polling booth.

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer said commissioners "will have the capacity to set police budgets and priorities and hire and fire the chief constable. Yet given the chance to participate in an extension of democratic control, only a tiny minority of citizens wanted to join in.

"If you just can't be arsed to vote," he wrote, lamenting the low turnout, "then the person most to blame is you."

Now, if you think that anything and everything should be open to some kind of political take or angle, then you'd have to agree with this stance. But I side with the human rights organisation Liberty which claims the Government's new policing structure "compromises police force independence and puts pressure on police to serve a political agenda rather than the community as a whole".

Liberty's director of policy Isabella Sankey, said: "Independent policing is as vital as an independent judiciary – chief constables should be above party politics not subordinate to it."

I once watched two political parties come to blows over refuse collection – the right wingers wanted it privatised so some firm could cut costs and reduce overall service – the left wingers demanded a greater say for trade unions alongside a few looney ideas that were, in short, undemocratic. Both were wrong.

What the ratepayers deserved was a decent, well-managed system which cleared rubbish as cheaply and effectively as possible. Nothing on offer by the rainbow of rabid political views was helping to achieve this – indeed the politics were simply getting in the way.

I dread to think what kind of nonsense a highly politicised policing system could bring down upon our hapless heads.

Country folk in particular ought to beware the demands of urban populations controlling forces which act in both zones – then there's all manner of mischief which could be done if either ultra-right or left-leaning people gained the whip hand.

Sometimes the professionals simply know best. Let's not hamper democracy by attempting to make it jump through hoops it was never designed for.

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