We need to talk about Kevin
With the Police and Crime Commissioner elections upon us and the candidates now formally nominated, it is worth reflecting on the range of candidates on offer. Two depressing facts stand out: the pool from which our new PCCs will be drawn is highly unrepresentative of the population as a whole and is less representative than when these elections were last fought in November 2012.
First, let’s look at the gender profile of the candidates. Astonishingly there are more former police officers (32) standing in these elections than there are women (29). Just 15% of the candidates are female, which is down from 18% in 2012. This compares to 26% of candidates in the May 2015 general election who were women. Currently just 15% of PCCs are women, compared to 29% of MPs.
Graph 1. The gender of nominated PCC candidates
Second, let’s turn to the ethnic breakdown of the nominated candidates. It is not possible to accurately ascertain the ethnic background of candidates without asking the candidates directly. However, with that important caveat and based on information available on the internet, we conclude that 95% of the candidates are white, just 2% are from BME communities and there are a further 3% whose ethnicity is not identifiable on the internet. In fact there are more white men called Kevin (6) standing in the PCC elections than there are BME candidates (3). There are currently no PCCs from BME backgrounds, compared to 6% of MPs and 13% of the population.
Graph 2. The ethnicity of nominated PCC candidates
Third, let’s look at the occupational backgrounds of the candidates. Excluding PCCs who are standing again and political roles like being a councillor (which many do in addition to a full time job), the most common occupational category is former police officers (17%). The second and third most common categories are people with military (10%) and business (10%) backgrounds. As perhaps should be expected political roles are also very common, particularly being a councillor (49%) or being a former police authority member (10%).
Graph 3. The occupational background of nominated PCC candidates
The fact that the pool of candidates is so unrepresentative of the population is a major cause for concern. The point of the PCC reforms was to strengthen the accountability of the police to the public. The majority of the public are women and yet 85% of PCC candidates are men. 13% of the UK population are from a BME background and yet it is highly likely there will not be a single BME candidate elected on 5th May.
The fact that 17% of the candidates are former police officers is also a concern. I caveat this point by saying there are a number of excellent PCCs who have been police officers. We know ex-cops are popular with the public, because it is commonly believed they will bring a superior level of professional expertise to the role. However, the point of the PCC reforms was to make the police service more accountable to the general public, rather than to their former police colleagues. There is clearly a danger of insider capture’ here. There is also a specific problem where ex officers who have served under a chief constable end up becoming that chief constable’s boss’. This has created a destabilising situation in some forces.
What can be done about this? As the Electoral Reform Society has pointed out the deposit required to stand in these elections is ten times that required to stand for parliament. If one were to stand as an independent, without the backing of a major party, one would have to be willing to risk losing £5,000, which to very many people is prohibitive. Even more significantly there is the challenge for candidates having to communicate to voters across such a wide area, which is extremely costly. These financial barriers should be reviewed.
Given that most PCCs are from the big political parties there is a particular onus on the parties to do more to promote a more representative mix of candidates. A lot of this requires active outreach and engagement, not just for the PCC elections, but more widely. Parties cannot simply sit back and expect people to come to them.
Finally much more needs to be done to explain the importance of this role. Although, as Ian Loader and I have argued, PCCs are unquestionably more visible than the police authorities they replaced, the public is still largely unfamiliar with what they do and the powers they have. For example, a lot of the issues that are of major concern to minority communities such as the use of stop and search powers by police officers, are questions over which PCCs hold considerable sway. This is an office that does have an immediate relevance to people’s day to day lives, but this has not been successfully communicated.
One of the totemic Peelian principles is that the police are the public, the public are the police’. The same should go for Police and Crime Commissioners.