In the United States in the 1940’s, just before McCarthyism got in to full swing, the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities achieved fame when investigating Hollywood, with the memorable question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”. This historical gem jumped into my mind this weekend when, having read about Peter Hain’s worries that allegedly independent Councillors were actually closet Tories, I then happened across John Harvey’s item on LabourList – “7 Questions for ‘Independent’ Police and Crime Commissioner candidates“. It begins with worries that the government parties might be stealthily seeking the election of candidates under an Independent banner who actually are supportive of the government, before moving on to his first question – “Are you or have you ever been a”… Wait for it… “member of a political party?” Ah! So near, yet so far!
There is clearly a concern on the left that the general dislike of politicians and political parties, coupled with an election about policing, where politics is seen as a bad thing, could result in a boost for Independents, some of whom might be those evil Tories in disguise.
But Councillor Harvey’s Questions apply equally to anyone, and perhaps reveal a problem with the concept of independence that Paul Richards has already hinted at. ‘Independent’ is not the opposite of ‘political’, and anyone who has gone to the bother of seeking to be elected as a Police and Crime Commissioner is seeking at least to become a politician, if they are not one already. As someone once said, whoever you vote for, the Government always gets in.
Instead, ‘independent’ is used in contrast to ‘party political’, and therefore tells us nothing at all about what the Independent actually believes, other than whether they are choosing to associate publicly with a particular political tribe at a particular time.
Curiously, independence as a quality possibly should matter less in this election than in others. The winning candidates will be individual office-holders, not needing to take decisions in meetings of party groups, whether they are in a party or not. They will become the politicians in their area with the greatest numbers of personal votes cast for them, and have over three years of the attention that brings to establish their names locally before attempting re-election. This is not a scenario which gives all power to the party machine, even if those machines were still what they once were, and the instant fame of the internet had never been invented. This is the land of Boris and Ken. Sure, they are party people, but does anyone seriously think they are not their own men?
And a focus on Independents might mean that an opportunity is missed in terms of the development of policy on crime and disorder. What does a Labour local Police and Crime policy look like? How is a Conservative one different? Do the differences between the parties have any real meaning on these issues, and if not, why not? Crime policy is normally subsumed into and often lost in the wider political debate in elections, but this election is about crime, and apart from the Mayoral contests has little to take it off-topic.
However, it may be in the interests of the major parties to keep the conversation just on personalities, rather than extending into policies. How many Tories are happy with Ken Clarke’s approach to crime and disorder? How many Labour thinkers were happy with the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the last Government and the escalation in prisoner numbers? Are Liberals unlikely to put forward candidates for fear that their liberal views on crime will get the public kicking that their views on electoral reform got in the referendum last year?
Ironically, a focus on Independents could save the parties from the difficult task of resolving their own problems on what to actually do about crime.
That problem is part of what this site is about. ‘Independent’, just as much as a party label, does not tell us enough about the people who want to be Commissioners and their politics in the one election that might inject a fair amount of democracy into the politics of law and order. This is why this site features Candidate Statements and perspectives from party people and from independents. This is the opportunity to explore what these people are about, what they want to do with this great opportunity, and what that means for the rest of us. This election is what you make of it, and so if you, candidate or citizen, want to provide your perspective on how politics should influence policy on crime, email away, and share it with the world. Even if, like me, you’re a Tory!
In at least two Councils in Sussex there have been several ‘Independents’ who have left parties and then become indies, and then in some cases done the reverse trick, so perhaps Haines comments do need to be considered. However Sam I take issue with your view that Independents are not so important here. The reason is three fold.
Firstly the success of the Police Authority is that voices and views of Independents (by which I mean real ones) have been heard in equal measure with the political party voices. Due to the unhelpful make up of the PCP, this voice will be almost entirely lost.
Secondly (and this is only the case in areas such as Sussex where there is a dominant party) the PCC will simply add to the dominant make up of the PCP and in effect the PCP scrutiny will become a squabble at the margins by the minor politicians.
Thirdly the tri-partite arrangement becomes either outright hostility or a big love in between the PCC and the Home Secretary. The real risk is that a PCC who is a member of the national ruling party will prevent the very reform that this is intended to achieve – the control remains in the same place in ideological thinking.
Independents in this election should be (if we want this change to succeed) the norm and only where it is clear to the parties that either they have an outstanding local candidate or that there is no credible Independent should the machinery be used to ‘force’ the election.
However I have a PS – the idea that an individual will necessarily be someone like me who has never been a member of a political party, should not be seen as the golden fleece. If individuals have spent their lives in business or the charitable sector or some other life forming environment (I have spent time in both) then simply being a member of a party should not be seen as a absolute barrier. All of us carry some baggage. The real question is can they provide evidence that in a room full of people from various political parties and none, that they will be equally trusted (or mistrusted) by all. It is the tribal/clubbable nature of politics that creates a big worry plus the geographical nature of the electorate in many of our force areas. The whole community needs the police to look after their interests, and sometimes as with the fear of crime, the facts are not what creates the problem.