I didn't go on today's march in London. Therefore, befitting an ongoing political degeneration, your humble scribe eschewed extra-parliamentary action for traditional doorstep campaigning with Joy Garner (pictured), Labour's candidate for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Staffordshire. Happily, our door knockers received a solid response.
It would be fair to say the upcoming contest hasn't exactly captured the popular imagination. With polling due on November 15th the government hasn't exactly gone all out to let the public know about Dave's flagship law and order policy. Small wonder turnout is predicted to reach new, miserable lows, immediately putting into question the legitimacy of each and every successful candidate (regardless of their politics) and of the exercise itself. Well done Tories for ably delivering another shambles.
As far as Labour is concerned, it is the party's settled position that the £30m plus cost of implementing the policy is money better spent on policing itself. That said, quite rightly, as it is happening anyway and because these are powerful political positions, it would be an own-goal to allow Tories and other anti-labour movement misfits a free run.
So what are PCCs for? What's their role in life? According to the briefing pack available from the Home Office, they will:
1) Determine overall policing priorities
2) Oversee and set policing budgets, and hold the Chief Superintendent to account
3) Formulate a plan for policing and crime prevention
4) Responsibility for a victim support strategy
Believe me when I say the documentation available to prospective PCC candidates doesn't elaborate very much on top of that.
There is more clarity where it comes to the PCC's accountability. In between elections they are scrutinised by a Police and Crime Panel, which draws its unremunerated representatives from the local authorities that operate in any given police area. For example, in Staffordshire PCP reps will be drawn from Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Staffordshire County Council, and the various district councils that operate across the county. There is also room for co-optees if the PCP sees fit.
Despite the government's unhelpful lack of direction, taking charge of a Police Force's budget and being responsible for giving it strategic direction is no Mickey Mouse post. This is why as many Labour commissioners need to be returned as possible.
In Staffordshire, the election is a straight fight between Joy and the Conservative candidate, Matthew Ellis. Joy's pledges involve working around the incoming Tory cuts of 20% as much as is practicable. She is opposed to the creeping privatisation of the police service, will protect frontline neighbourhood policing, and will carry on her present work on the outgoing Police Authority to make them more accountable to those communities. Joy is also a long-standing City Councillor in Stoke, a trade unionist (USDAW), and lives in the heart of Burslem. Cuts made to policing will impact her and the community she represents directly.
Fittingly, for a party no longer pretending to represent broad swathes of the population, the Tory candidate, Matthew Ellis represents Lichfield Rural East on Staffs County Council. He is a millionaire ex-businessman. Now, far be it for me to represent this election as a fight between a working class woman and a member of the landed ruling class - after all, as Dave likes to remind us, it's not their background that matters but where they are going.
Unfortunately, the Tory-ruled County Council of which Cllr Ellis is a leading member is a living preview of what awaits Staffordshire Police should he become PCC. Presently a huge chunk of the Council's education infrastructure, encompassing some 5,000 jobs, will be transferred to a private company just before next year's local elections. And this is the beginning of a rolling programme. The Tory Group aspire to hive off other county functions so all that remains is a small administrative core commissioning private providers to undertake services. It ticks the box of their small state obsessions while ensuring public accountability plays second fiddle to shareholder dividends. I wouldn't be surprised if links are established between whatever company scoops up the contract and Tory funders either.
What is happening at Staffordshire County Council exposes the key issue before voters in November. Here and elsewhere you can choose between Labour candidates who will make the best of a funding cut from central government and work to make policing accountable to our communities, or Tory candidates for whom the police is a commercial opportunity. For them, the commissioner part is prioritised over 'police' and 'crime'.
I know who I'll be voting for.