Giselle Green ran Siobhan Benita’s media campaign in the recent London Mayoral election. She is an ex-BBC News producer.
The media's obsession with the low turnout for the PCC elections was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Right from the start the overwhelming message appeared to be: these elections are unnecessary, uncalled for and downright dull so we won't bother reporting them except to say they are unnecessary, uncalled for and downright dull. I'm certainly not defending David Cameron’s apparent belief that it is the media's job to step in when the government has so monumentally failed to publicise them (perversely preferring to spend £25 million delaying the elections from May until November rather than on funding mail shots). But if the media sets such a downbeat tone, it's not surprising that it rubs off on voters.
I must declare a personal interest here. Following my role as Siobhan Benita's Head of Media in her London mayoral campaign, I became loosely involved in the campaign of the ultimately successful independent candidate in Kent, Ann Barnes. I wrote to many national journalists and broadcasters, telling them about her excellent prospects, hoping this might prompt them to use her as part of their national coverage and spark debate on, for example, which independent candidates might have a chance of getting elected or on why so few women were standing. Nothing doing, other than a couple of lines in the Guardian's Media Monkey.
I offer this personal tale purely as one small example of press disinterest, which you may well think is justified. It would be helpful to hear from other candidates about the level of coverage they received, both locally and nationally to get a more accurate picture. Interestingly, Ann’s campaign team felt she did receive decent (and fair) news coverage from the local media. And thanks to a more reasonable approach by broadcasters than in the London mayoral election, they say Ann’s appearance in all the regional TV debates was an absolutely vital factor in her success.
It’s quite possible of course that the perception of poor media coverage is another example of the London-centric bias of our media and Downing Street: if it’s not in the London-based national press, it’s not happening. Or maybe we shouldn’t confuse reporting an election with convincing the public to vote. Hopefully the Electoral Reform Society’s enquiry into “the comedy of errors” of these PCC elections will also look at the media’s role.
What is clear though is that the national media totally failed to predict the big story of the PCC elections: TWELVE independent candidates being elected, compared to Labour’s 13 and the Tories’ 16. Paradoxically, the success of independents is related to both the low turnout and the lack of information. Yes, voter apathy and ignorance (whether due to government incompetence, patchy media coverage or November gloom) are valid explanations for the embarrassingly low turnout. But I think another major reason is that for a public which is so used to voting tribally, this election posed a real problem. Most people instinctively felt it was wrong to have a party political police commissioner. So where could they turn? With no information and little interest, they just didn't bother to vote at all. Or spoiled their ballot paper, scrawling as one Sheffield voter did: “no independent therefore none of the above”. The minority who did vote had done their homework and actively sought out information, leading huge numbers to plump for serious, credible independents, the majority of whom have relevant policing experience as ex-police officers or ex-police authority chairs. People who had been won over by independent candidates were also more committed and motivated to get out and vote for them, compared with lethargic party political voters.
So what was billed as a bad day for democracy, with turnout at an all time low, may ironically have turned out to be a great day for democracy, with the most appropriate people being elected and voters learning how to put a cross next to the word “independent”.
As one of the few Independents to fail to get a grey flag into the South East corner, I would have to say I got my fair share of media space. That said none of us did terribly well in Sussex and I certainly failed to get any self generated interest outside of the formal election period. Ann is to be congratulated for her hard work and that of her team. Sussex is a little disadvantaged with being in the middle of the overlap between the BBC SE and BBC S areas and I have no idea what BBC S did for coverage. In terms of newspaper coverage I did reasonably well, where I was well known as did the other candidates in their areas. There was one really disappointing Guardian or Observer piece that focused on the two parties and did not even make any reference to the Independents who were in the race at that point. The big question is why did the media simply prod the PCC idea with a stick and not actually use some time to unpack it properly. As one of the few Independent candidates coming from a Voluntary Sector background it felt as though I was the only one promoting the ‘And Crime’ element at all at a local level and the regional media are even asking today how come no one mentioned it. This would possibly have opened the door to my own experience being seen at least a relevant as that of ex coppers and ex PA members. I don’t doubt they will get there, but I would say that as a community based candidate with policing knowledge I would have done the reverse journey an awful lot quicker and changed the culture an awful lot more.
I think this piece does raise another matter which is what happens in May 2015 when those who are serious about increasing the Indpendent stake still further (a much greater challenge when running alongside Council elections) begin their planning and ground work. I approached the Independent network a year ago and they said they couldn’t help due to the lack of resources. I am not suggesting that they are the people who should be the gatekeeper for the future, but they do at least have a rationale for creating something of a qualitative measure of candidates. We do need to think seriously about where the next tranche come from. We won’t have PA to turn to and the numbers of Independent PCP members are far too few to be reliable sources. Will it be purely down to retired officers or councillors who decide the resign the party whip when the time comes to become ‘Independent’ or will we be able to turn to well connected members of Independent Advisory Groups (assuming that the PCCs don’t reverse Macphersons recommendations!)?
I did vote but not out of loyalty to Cameron and his half baked ideas! It was because I do not want to leave it to the Tories to gain more commissioners and so push through their plans for more privatisation. At least with more Police Commissioners from other sides that are not going to look for cuts to justify privatisation of the Police Force, we have a small chance to avoid the inevitable if Tory boy does have some opposition it is better. Also I am not convinced that all the Independent candidates are all A political. Politicisation, is and will be a disaster but we need to watch this space as it is predicted to fail and will herald a huge back lash from the voters. Bring it on!!!
Nah – In Kent it was a question of keeping the Tory out. Mind you he made it easy with his silly nonsense about ‘oppressive’ black uniforms and finally slipping into negative campaigning.
The best way to deal with the Tories nonsense was to vote for an alternative to a conservative candidate. keep them out!
‘the majority of whom have relevant policing experience as ex-police officers or ex-police authority chairs’ means those ‘independent’ winning candidates were not independent at all. They were merely a ‘hobson’s choice’ alternative to a politician (in Cheshire the winner is both! – ex-assistant chief constable of the same constabulary AND the Tory Party nominee: how’s that for independence!).
No, the real failure of the whole farago was not to attract truly independent, high profile candidates, with credible experience in grassroots community involvement plus some managerial or executive background in a commercial or public organisation i.e running something of size and complexity. And with no past or present connections with police, police authority or party politics.
Where were these people? Of course – already much too busy in meaningful activity, not to be diverted by a post with no budget and fraught with potential disputes and frustrations, with precious little to show for it at the end of four years.
It’s true to say that this is a demanding and often thankless role, with a difficult few years ahead. That will have been off-putting to a number of those able to think it through. Others will however take it forward from a sense of public service and because it matches their skills and experience, so they feel they have something to contribute.
As to Independence, just because Mr Dwyer is a Tory and an ex-officer does not mean he is not independently minded. I don’t know him and can’t say either way, but he was chosen when these two facts were well known.
My own preference is to know what biases people may have rather than a pretended impartiality.
In Devon and Cornwall there were four party candidates (Con, LibDem, UKIP, Lab) and six independents. The Conservative eventually won, and in my opinion was a good candidate (though I spoilt my own ballot in protest, so I have nothing personally going for him). An independent with a police authority experience came second.
On the first round the six independents got about 54% of the votes – shared between the six independents. None had any professional campaigning help.
Too many independents? And if so, how to whittle them down next time?