Does turnout matter?

One defining moment of the CREST Advisory PCC Future event this week was when one of the assembled experts, having been asked to estimate the turnout in November, gave a figure but then added that it didn’t matter.

Cue a simultaneous expression of shock and disagreement from the vast majority of the PCC-candidate dominated audience, only for other experts to chime in with support for this notion with reference to a special argument, of which more later.

The moment showed an audience fully engaged with the speakers, who are all living these elections together, partly through outlets such as this site. It held a special resonance for me, as I had field-tested a similar point a few weeks earlier at a Westminster Briefing about Community Safety and PCCs. When I was asked about turnout then I quoted Ian Chisnall’s comment on this site that any PCC would have a ‘greater personal mandate than the PM, Home Sec and Policing Minister combined‘. On that occasion most of the audience were unmoved, with one exception who went into detail of how little he liked the argument. But this week I had my vindication – the experts were agreeing with me (and Ian).

I think turnout could be poor. It could be anywhere from 15% at a guess up to around 40%. Who really knows? For most PCC candidates the turnout that matters most is the turnout of their own supporters. Anything beyond that is a bonus. There will be no-one who wins on 16 November refusing to take the job because they did not get enough support.

The PCC, due to the Supplementary Vote system, will have essentially the backing of a majority of the electorate who voted. It may be a small percentage, but it will still be a big number, and a bigger number than any Councillor or MP they run up against. James O’Shaughnessy, former Director of Policy at 10 Downing Street, called it a mandate MPs would dream of.

Who’s to say how other people who didn’t vote would have voted? The person who wins had a majority. Sure, they would feel better with a big turnout, but they are going to be feeling pretty good even if they don’t have one. They will have been selected by a process that produces more personal support than most other elections, and more than any police authority or Chief Constable has ever had. They will have office. They will have powers and responsibilities. They will have work to do, and the vaguaries of turnout will be matters for political anoraks.


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6 Responses to Does turnout matter?

  1. Sam – you are rather showing your political colours here – you seem to be getting your apology in early for what could sadly be an extraordinary low turnout and saying it really doesn’t matter. It does matter for a whole heap of reasons not least of which is that in every ballot taken (be it for local government, trade union strike decisions, shareholder rebellion against fat cat wages etc) – the percentage voting is mentioned and recorded. That at least makes it matter.

    Yes, I agree, a Chief Constable is hardly likely to say to a PCC – please don’t bother me as you only managed to get 7% of the local population voting for you – the CCs will have to recognise the democratic legitimacy of the post nonetheless. But… there will be a subtext – and one that the PCPs will exploit too as they collectively are likely to have more votes behind them than the PCC – if turnout is low.

    Perhaps the Government does not want to really invest in public awareness raising – so that when the turnout is as low as is expected they can blame that rather than the public voting with the feet not to have these positions in the first place (as they did with recent Mayoral referenda except for Bristol).

    But I do hope that the Home Office does get its act together and does some serious public awareness raising (as I talked about yesterday: – because I was a dynamic democracy where issues about the future shape of policing are debated by the public. I want real democracy and real politics ( to guide which people are selected to hold these new offices.

    Or do we now have a Government that is content to let democracy slide into being a minority sport, cynically perceived – as many of the newspapers would wish it to be?

    • samchapman says:

      Showing my political colours? I never hide them, yet the candidate I was quoting is an Independent, and unlikely to be confused with the Tories, and the speaker who caused the gasps was not one of the ‘political’ speakers, from either side.

      • I know you don’t – but perhaps you are displaying them here more than in other posts?

        It was your last paragraph I was particularly responding to where you appear to preparing the ground to rationalise away a low turnout (“the vaguaries of turnout will be matters for political anoraks.”)

      • samchapman says:

        You and I are probably both political anoraks, but we need to realise that most people are not. They don’t remember turnout figures. Even I struggle to. They remember who won, and whether they did what they said they would.
        Given your suspicions about my intent, let me pile more on top. Majorities. A big majority would be nice. A majority of one will be quite sufficient. For me in Lancashire, for Labour in Thames Valley, for Boris in London in current circumstances, a slim majority is both an achievement and a ringing endorsement. Would we like more? Yes. But winning will be enough.

  2. Your first statement is probably true.

    I would still maintain that given how contraversial these elections are going to be – most articles I am reading now usually end with a stream of added comments from the public about why is the Government mixing politics and policing (see as one example – although how they call that news I do not know!) – turnout will be discussed and remembered by more people than just us anoraks (or is that anorhacks?) This is a new form of governance after all and support for it will be clocked.

    But yes I know, even small winning margins are all that matters in the end…

  3. Sceptical of PCC's says:

    The more the current administration makes issue of strike votes with low turnouts the more it invites criticism of a low turnout PCC vote. Ultimately a low turnout will be a blow to the national administration as it will demonstrate that the Public do not support the PCC concept. Why they need to be told this again is a mystery.

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