A version of this article was published yesterday on ConservativeHome. It is the first of a series on PCC election failures by the four main political parties.
This week, in the elections for the flagship Police and Crime Commissioner policy, the Conservative Party failed to win in Surrey. Yes, you read that right, the Conservatives lost in Surrey. And the party had a good, credible, experienced and pleasant candidate in the form of Julie Iles, but still lost. Technically the party could blame the voting system except they lead the Government that chose it and, even on first preference votes, Iles was only a fraction ahead of the eventual winner, Independent and former Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley.
The woes in Surrey were repeated in Hampshire, yes Hampshire, where Michael Mates lost to Simon Hayes, another Independent and former Conservative Police Authority chair. And in Norfolk it happened again, as Conservative candidate Jamie Athill was beaten by another former Conservative Police Authority chair, Stephen Bett.
What all these contests have in common is that the local Conservative selection processes were felt by some to be so unsatisfactory that the official candidate could not be supported and these elections turned into unofficial primary elections, where voters used their first and supplementary votes not merely to choose a Conservative, but to choose what type of Conservative they wanted, and in all three cases it was the disgruntled ex-Conservative who was chosen. This was not 'sour grapes' from 'losers'. These three went on to be winners, even without the benefit of party support.
In Surrey's case, the party had neglected to shortlist Hurley. In Norfolk, Bett had been shortlisted but rejected after a tally of votes from those who attended either of the two selection meetings. In Hampshire a substantial body of members simply could not believe that 78-year old Mates, hardly helped by the simultaneous trial and conviction of Asil Nadir, could have been picked by the party.
Losing three of what should be 'safe' PCC areas this way was incomprehensible, but the damage was not limited to those. In Dorset, Nick King lost to Independent Martyn Underhill. The latter is no Tory but, in the last weeks of the campaign, allegations surfaced and were published about King's business history. The telling point was not the content of the allegations, which failed to excite most to whom they were sent, but the way they were written, suggesting they came from a Conservative unhappy at the selection.
In the West Midlands, the Conservative candidate took a disappointing 18.5% of the first preferences, compared with Labour's 42%, after a Conservative selection process that resulted in so many complaints that the party had to establish an internal investigation.
I write this, possibly especially aware of difficulties with selections, having been the runner-up for the Conservative nomination in Lancashire. On Friday I watched one former police officer after another receive a boost in the polls, as had been predicted by three separate pieces of research, and wondered whether the results in Lancashire, the West Midlands, Surrey and indeed Kent would have been different if the party had organised a fair consideration of the candidates with police experience that had been offered to them. (I'm not alone in this thought, see one academic's view here on the Sunday Politics North West – from 1 hr 1 min)
Having covered these elections for nine months I have received report after report from these areas and others showing a depth and breadth of concern about selection processes that I have never seen before. The irony is that there were numerous faults in Labour's selection processes, but the Conservatives could not make the most of these as their's were no better.
The PCC elections have been marred by a failure to engage large sections of the electorate at the ballot box, but this itself is built on another failure, the failure to engage meaningful amounts of either the party or the electorate in the choice of candidates. If a party cannot engage anything more than a tiny fraction of their members in choosing candidates, what chance is there that they can motivate those members to enthuse the population at large?
We know that proper, informed postal ballots of members can engage them in candidate selection. We know that full open primaries, not the pale imitation used in many areas, can secure the involvement of the electorate. Yet the party continue to think it acceptable to make selections based on how many supporters a tiny number of candidates can pack into a room at one end of a county. By doing this the Conservatives lost several of these elections, and the momentum they could have created for other victories.