East meets Westminster: Starting gun fires for PCC battle - but does anyone care?

CAMPAIGNING is under way for a poll which could prove a bell-weather for the 2015 general election, writes Richard Porritt.

But, it appears, most of the public have absolutely no idea that come November 15 they will be invited to vote along political lines for new Police and Crime Commissioners.

Up and down the country the parties’ faithful are getting ready for the ground campaign – expect a knock on the door and a carpet-bombing of leaflets – while in London spin doctors and advisers are preparing leaders for outcomes good and bad.

What will probably happen is the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates will suffer for the Coalition’s woes and Labour will do well – with a few independents fighting on local issues in the mix as well. But really this should be a more complex poll than a simple choice on party lines.

Why will a politician be any good at being among the top brass of a police force? Exactly what experience or knowledge do the candidates possess? Scanning the list nationally it appears to be very little for the most part. Elections attract people keen to make politics their career as much as people keen to make a difference – and the PCC vote has its fair share of both.

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The point of the role though is about giving the public someone to aim their views at, someone with influence to shape the direction of policing who is not physically involved with the important day-to-day activities of catching crooks.

On the face of it the battle for the PCC in Suffolk has a clear favourite in Conservative candidate Tim Passmore. He is well-known in the county, has a political history at grass-roots level and knows what makes the region tick.

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But Labour’s Jane Basham – former chief executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality - could capitalise on a low turnout and cause a shock. Current estimates predict as little as 16% of people across England and Wales will actually bother to vote. And Labour’s support is bubbling under the surface again after more than two years of opposition.

As far as their opening shots in the race to be Suffolk’s first PCC they are, not surprisingly, singing from a similar hymn sheet – they both want crime to fall.

“I have been knocking on doors for some considerable time now and I am very interested to hear people’s concerns,” Mr Passmore said. “These broadly range from worries about drugs and violence to anti-social behaviour and vandalism – but they impact on people’s lives.

“With regards drugs we need a joined-up approach and we need education. The key is to attack demand.”

But he is realistic about solutions to problems – there is not going to be a big pot of cash to throw at catching the region’s criminals.

“We live in a great, big county but we are not going to get any more money – we are going to be further hit by cuts. So we need to think of ways to work differently, of ways we can improve by tackling problems using technology or whatever it might be.” He understands the role will be a tricky one. People expect a lot from the police and those expectations will land with a thud on whoever is elected’s desk in the near future.

But concerns remain over why exactly the role is even being created. There has been disquiet on several fronts with claims that even as recently as the spring the Prime Minister was being urged to put the vote on hold – it is not cheap and the public still remains confused about exactly what they are being asked to vote for.

And Ms Basham claims much of her time is spent explaining what the role is and why people are being asked to vote rather than how she will make a difference.

“On the doorsteps people are still very confused about the election – not enough is being done to inform people about it. Many have absolutely no idea what the PCC or even that they are going to get the chance to vote,” she said. “Government is planning a national campaign to make people aware but I fear it will come too late. I am spending a great deal of time when I meet people explaining the whole concept to them.”

So Ms Basham, here is your chance to tell the people why they should vote for you: “We have to focus squarely on the causes of crime. It is hoped this position will bring other agencies together to approach this element of policing from every angle – that is something I feel is hugely important. The issues are vast in Suffolk. We have a stark mix of urban and rural and very different sorts of crimes in different areas.”

Much of the rhetoric from both candidates is along obvious lines because in many respects Tories, Labour or even Monster raving Loonies all want to be safe.

But both recognise the opportunities of the role and are hoping people will vote so they can govern with a real mandate. Ms Basham added: “Low turn outs often throw up results that people are not expecting and in Suffolk, on paper at least, people will be expecting a Tory victory. But I am in this to win and I believe I can win it. But I would prefer to win with a decent turn out – people must get out and make a choice.”

Answering critics who disgree that polticians should be involved in policing to this degree Mr Passmore added: “People have expressed concerned about whether this role should be a political one and what I assure those people is that I am very independently minded – yes I am the conservative candidate but Suffolk and its people will always come first as far as I am concerned. There is also an oath of office which the success candidate will take and I think that also goes some way to reassuring people.

“It will also allow any political pressure to be lifted from the police themselves. Any political flack will come the way of the commissioner. This is a chance for the people of Suffolk to ensure they get the best deal for Suffolk’s police. For the first time they get to have a say and that chance should not be wasted – it is a golden opportunity.”

Not many people appear to know it yet but this is a watershed moment in British policing and British politics.

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