The PCC election was a massive missed opportunity for the Labour party, but it was also so much more.
To appreciate that, have a look at Wales. North Wales and Gwent have gone to Independents. Dyfed-Powys has gone to the Tories. South Wales nearly went Independent, with Alun Michael seeing Mike Baker coming within 12,000 votes of him in the second round. Labour, having spent the election cursing the rules on previous convictions must privately be glad of their existence, as Simon Weston surely could have closed that gap and left Welsh policing free of Labour entirely.
Mid-terms are supposed to bring the blues but not these blues. How did the Conservatives on a bad day still end up with more PCCs than Labour?
One way was for Labour to mis-play their winning card. The Labour party had the most open final selection procedure with a postal ballot for every member. Because they were doing elections for the NEC at the same time, it didn’t even cost them a meaningful extra sum. They arranged some hustings, shortlisted some candidates, and potentially involved all their members in a way no other party did, leaving them in a great position to ask those members to return to the doorstep in autumn.
Except they didn’t do that. In 12 of the 41 areas there was no such election. To be fair, a reasonable number of these would probably have been written off as “no hopers”. Labour winning in Surrey or Wiltshire or several other areas was going to be difficult, and in some places they only had one candidate offering to take a bullet for the party.
But that wasn’t always the case. In 2 areas, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, the Labour candidate was expected to win, yet by the time the shortlist was finalised, there was only one name on it. It’s easy to say that heavyweights may have scared off other candidates but, in other areas that were contested, the heavyweights had a real fight on their hands. A number of Labour people have complained of a culture of fixing selections, and this was reported in the local press in places like Leicestershire. Sarah Russell should have won there, but her opponent had recently run the RAF, there was an Independent possibly damaging her vote, and a number of members of the local party felt her selection was fixed and they had no say.
The feeling of elections being fixed spread into other areas that were contested. In Merseyside, John Ashton decided not to enter the contest, seeing it as set up for ex-Ministers. In Lancashire a prominent candidate was added to the interview list, but ‘missed off’ the invites, others reported the selection was fixed and one went public. The winning candidate got 5 grand from a union to help his selection chances, and broke the law, failing to declare the donations till after the selection was complete. He was not disciplined by Labour for this, but was disciplined for negative campaigning against his Labour rivals, but in a slap-on-the-wrist way that still allowed him to be selected. One Labour figure told me “there’s no point complaining about Clive in the Labour party. He’s got the backing of Unite and they won’t let anything happen to him.”
It is not for no reason that the most popular post on this site consistently for the past 6 months has been the one that pointed up difficulties with Labour’s selection procedure. By missing full selection processes in 12 areas and allowing a feeling of fixing to spread Labour lost a clear advantage.
Labour also made the mistake of all political parties in choosing politicians as candidates, who the electorate did not want, and turning down candidates with police experience, who the electorate preferred. These preferences were clear in multiple pieces of research, and at the election itself. The difference with Labour is that choosing experienced police candidates would have sat better with their “don’t politicise policing’ ethic than their eventual choice of candidates heavily populated by ex-MPs and ex-Ministers.
The worst indulgence was John Prescott, whose early interviews betrayed no appreciation of the need to not interfere with police operations, and who, despite receiving more free publicity from the media than any other candidate, gave effect to his Marmite tendency, as those who don’t like him used their Supplementary Vote in Humberside to propel Conservative Matthew Grove to victory. Easy to forget that the local party had the choice of a retired Chief Superintendent, and very nearly took it. Another retired Chief Super very nearly stole second place, and the election, on his own, without party backing. In choosing Prescott, Labour showed itself to be out-of-touch with local electors.
But they were also out of touch with the law. Time and again Labour candidates were removed because of some breach of the law that would disqualify them from office. Yes, Theresa May didn’t appreciate this either, but anyone with a basic familiarity with the law could have told them that it applied to teenage convictions, and that aspect of the law had been supported by their parliamentary team. One would have expected Labour’s lawyers to spot that Alan Charles was not in fact disqualified, but he had to stand down and be reinstated, then forced to explain about his teenage purse theft that would otherwise have remained unknown. And frankly the late attempted withdrawal of Lee Barron in Northamptonshire, leaving local voters with no Labour option that could win, but with him confusingly still on the ballot paper, surely demands a proper investigation. It cannot be good that Labour selections often gave the impression of preferring convicts to coppers.
Finally, Labour suffered from a confused approach to these elections. The line taken was “these posts are dangerous and will politicise policing, but you’ve done it now and so we are taking part”. There was no recognition of recent Labour policy positions that were more favourably disposed to a role for the electorate in policing. There was little in the way of spelling out what was different about having a Labour PCC. Few candidates who might win would actually do more than make noises about police numbers. There were no guarantees.
The danger for Labour is that this confused approach continues into office. A number of PCCs seem to be at some point on the road to Damascus, with people like Vera Baird taking to explaining why the role won’t be overly political after all. There seems to be a desire to stand up for police numbers, but not in a way that provides money for them by raising Council Tax enough to cause a local referendum. No. The government will be asked for money it doesn’t have, and Labour will look they they have not learned the lessons of “spend, spend, spend”.