This took place in Britain (other than London, because the Mayor of London has this as one of his bags anyhow) on November 15, 2012 to fill the newly created post of Police & Crime Commissioner for one of 41 different Police areas throughout the country. This was allegedly one of the centrepieces of David Cameron and the Coalition Government's policy of "localism," which, briefly put, is the idea of decentralising things to local areas; the idea that rather than the Home Secretary or ACPO hand down edicts on what the Police's priorities should be, regional Police & Crime Commissioners could listen to the public and communicate concerns to Police chiefs and, in certain cases, fire the Chief Constable, who is answerable to these people.

However, this led to quite a few concerns.

Firstly, Britain has never really warmed to the American idea of electing every public official; the view is that it leads to a politicisation of the Police and the judiciary. Also, the idea that some schlub can turn up, be voted in, with no real idea of what's going on, and then start shoving the Police around is riven with impracticalities. In the US it works because an elected Police chief is usually a local Police officer in the first place, and an elected Judge is usually drawn from the ranks of local lawyers (which I'm sure goes towards explaining why American lawyers tend to try to get their mugs in the paper so much, so people know who they are.) But in Britain I can't see it really working.

But no, the appropriate provisions of the Localism Act went through and as such an election had to be held. There were, I'm informed, representations made by lots of election staff, Returning Officers, and local authorities (because they're the ones who have to organise everything), that it should be held at the same time as County Council elections in May 2013, but no, the edict came from above that it must be in November of 2012.

Due to the shortness of time, there was almost no publicity of the election, almost anywhere. A free mailshot (normally afforded to all candidates in a British election, general, local, or otherwise, was not sent out, due to alleged lack of funds. Even the poll cards were not completed in some areas, and most people who registered after poll cards were generated only got a letter informing them of their nearby polling station. Moreover, the candidates, although they were appointed by their parties, there was absolutely no propaganda forthcoming from any of them as to why you should vote for them and not the other guy. There was, in certain areas at least, a hustings but this was poorly attended and I questions how well that was advertised.

So the election went ahead. I had arranged to be a poll clerk in Oxford, and to do the count the day after, because you can hoover up a goodly couple o' hundred beer vouchers from it and that'll pay for a good few evenings oot on the tap (and other things, truth be told). So at 7.00 am I was in a church hall in the centre of Oxford, in a polling station that was the correct one for no less than 1,454 souls (most of which were students, truth be told). Can you guess how many people turned up.

One hundred and seventeen (117).

Fifteen hours sat in a draughty hall for 117 votes. That's a turnout of 8.0464%, which is, quite frankly, pitiful. Some polling stations in Oxford got about 50 votes of a similar number, which is even worse. Total city-wide turnout in Oxford - 10.6%. In the wider Thames Valley region - about 13%. Nationwide - similar. And one polling station in Newport in Wales had nobody turn up to vote all day.

Even when we got to the count, there was an inordinately high proportion of spoilt votes. Some people had written essays on their ballot paper saying how it was all a load of nonsense, how they objected to politicisation of the Police, and some had even written, "This is a spoilt ballot paper." That's aside from leaving it blank, crossing it all out, crossing by every candidate, or, as some wits did, voting for Inspector Morse or Jack Regan. The amount of spoilt ballots, usually less than 1%, was as high as 8% where I was counting. It was ridiculous.

However, there is no threshold in English law for an elected public official to have to have met before they are properly elected, so we now have our Police & Crime Commissioners, which nobody knows what they are for, and nobody knows who they are. It's certainly an inauspicious start to the Government's "localism" initiative. And we'll have them until 2014 irregardless of what happens next. Ain't life grand. At least they can't do any real damage - oh hold on - what's this about them being able to fire and hire the Chief Constable in any given region? Oh bugger.


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