This morning we had the sad news that Bob Jones, Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands, has suddenly died in his sleep overnight, at the age of 59. You can sign a Book of Condolences here.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Bob, but it is clear he was a forthright, straightforward, principled politician. He was a favourite of the media because he was willing to be the turkey that voted for Christmas. He didn’t believe in PCCs, and wanted them abolished, but if there was going to be one he thought it best it should be someone like him. He became the elected PCC with the biggest population in the country (if we don’t include Boris) and on the way he helped out this website by giving us our first ever Candidate Statement from any candidate in any area, and one that proved on TopOfTheCops web stats to be one of the most popular visits. By accepting the offer of space from a known Conservative at TopOfTheCops he gave an example that many of his Labour colleagues were then happy to follow. This was a critical part of establishing what was achieved by everyone who contributed to the cross-party debate on TopOfTheCops during the election campaign, and for that we are truly grateful.
The chances are that Bob, as first PCC for the West Midlands will be better remembered as last Chairman of the Police Authority. He had no intention of accepting the reform, and used his time as PCC to create a Strategic Policing Board, in many ways a miniature version of the police authority, with some cross-party and independent representation. While I felt differently about the need for reform, I had a sense of admiration for the way he managed to dodge rules on political restriction that we both thought little of in order to achieve this.
At this time it is right to think of the loss, and the friends and family who will feel it most. In any normal situation, we could leave it there, but in a cruel irony, the law simply won’t let that happen. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act dictates that a by-election must now be held within the West Midlands within 35 business days of a vacancy in the office being declared, and that declaration must be made if 2 electors give notice of the vacancy to the relevant officer. By my reckoning that means that if the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council has been told of this sad event by more than one person today, then someone at the Council will have their head in their hands as they look at the sums.
Depending on when they fill in the paperwork, an election in 35 working days means it needs to be over by around 19-20 August, and as Alan Travis has already noted in the Guardian, this does not auger well for improving turnout.
But that is just the start of the problems. The Police Area Returning Officer has to pick an election date, and this may include working out whether to keep to the convention of Thursday elections, or whether to ditch that tradition in the circumstances, and work back from that date to work out when the postal votes need to go out, when nominations must be received, etc. At the main election the rules required nominations to be in 19 working days before election day – almost 4 weeks, and there isn’t really much room for manouvre here if those ballots are going to get printed and posted.
That means it could conceivably be that there are only 3 weeks for candidates to get their nominations in. If you are an Independent candidate, without the easy access to an electronic version of the electoral roll that is quite a task. But if you are a political party you have the extra job of choosing a candidate in that time.
And then you must remember that this is the hardest UK election in which to be nominated. You need 100 valid signatures from electors on your nomination form, and £5,000 in cleared funds. While these rules are primed to close the wound quickly if a PCC is convicted of a crime, they seem cold and harsh when a man has just died.
Bob Jones never wanted there to be another PCC election, but because of his untimely death there will be just such an election next month, and the cruel reality is that even as our instinct is to mourn, there is a legal necessity for parties and candidates to plan their nominations even as his family plans the funeral.