Big changes on horizon as region votes for police and crime commissioners
The build-up may have been muted, but next week is the biggest in politics in the West since the general election, says politics correspondent Matthew George
Promising change is often among the emptiest of promises of any election candidate – but there genuinely will be seismic changes to the West’s political landscape this week, irrespective of who wins.
Both the elections of police and crime commissioners across the region and the poll for a directly elected mayor in Bristol are genuinely radical developments.
Coming exactly half-way through the Government’s anticipated five-year term it is in many ways the most significant set of elections since those tumultuous days in May 2010 when the coalition Government was formed.
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However, the first elections for police and crime commissioners (PCC) on Thursday continue to be dogged by fears over low turnouts.
There are 28 candidates across the South West for the posts, the creation of which was puched through by the Conservatives, despite strong opposition from the other parties.
There are elections in 41 police force areas in England and Wales – London Mayor Boris Johnson effectively does the job in the capital already.
The new system replaces police authorities, and the Conservatives say the new PCCs will have a higher profile, and as they are directly elected, will be more accountable to voters.
The winner “sets the budgets, sets the priorities, hires and fires the chief constable; bangs heads together to get things done,” according to David Cameron.
But amid speculation that holding the votes in the middle of November will see turnouts plunge below 20 per cent, the Prime Minister was being defensive yesterday.
“I think it is literally pointless to have a debate about turnout before an election takes place,” he said while campaigning in Cumbria.
“We are encouraging people to go out, take part and vote in order to have real accountability for the police.”
The PM claimed the system had worked well in London, and by the time of the next PCC elections in four years, people would know about commissioners. Former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Blair, who was forced out by Mr Johnson, backed away from his earlier call for voters to boycott the elections.
But he warned he still had serious concerns, including whether a politician from one party could represent everybody, and what would happen to non-local policing, such as counter-terrorism and serious and organised crime.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said although Labour opposed the creation of PCCs, they did not think it right to boycott the elections.
She said she expected successful Labour candidates to “send a message” to the PM about public discontent over 15,000 police officers being cut.”
There are four candidates in each of Dorset, Gloucester and Avon & Somerset, six in Wiltshire and 10 in Devon & Cornwall.
The three main parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats, are contesting all five South West elections, with UKIP standing in Wiltshire and in Devon & Cornwall.
The other 11 candidates are independent, and Mr Cameron had originally hoped some non-political party figures would be elected.
However the way his Government is running the election makes it highly unlikely that will happen, triggering protests by some West independents.
It has refused to allow a mailshot of leaflets to every home, meaning that wealthy political parties have a huge advantage as they can spend more on their campaigns.
The Government has set up a website with information, but many people across the rural West do not have access to the internet at all, or have poor broadband connections.