Wednesday, 21 November 2012

What's so good about police democracy?

ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO doesn’t get a very good press in the West – when he gets any press here at all.
But I was struck by the headline over a recent interview with the Belarussian president: “What’s so good about democracy anyway?”
Whatever you think of Lukashenko (if you ever think of him at all), it’s a question well worth asking yourself from time to time.
The best answer may lie with Winston Churchill, who called democracy “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.
Generations of American experience have shown that it is definitely not the best way of running a police service, even among those that have been tried.
Our police service, for all its many faults, probably really is (as is so often claimed) one of the world’s best. It has generally been at its worst when political interference has been at its strongest – as when Margaret Thatcher effectively made it her army against the miners.
We have yet to discover how much difference, if any, the newly elected police and crime commissioners will make to actual policing. It’s hard to see how they can fulfill the brief of increasing “public accountability”.
What they may be able to do is deflect flak from the government when decisions about the police prove unpopular. Which may, in fact, be what they are really there for.
Since they are mostly supposed to leave the professionals to get on with the job, one wonders what they will do to earn their up-to-£100,000-a-year salaries. Sounds a decent sum for hiring and firing chief constables and setting the police budget, which is what one candidate said the role boiled down to.
The election itself was budgeted at £75million, which adds up to about £12 for each vote actually cast.
At a time when the police, like nearly every other public service, is groaning under cuts, does any of this sound like money well spent?
I did consider last week doing something I’ve never done before – abstain in a public election. I kept reminding myself of the old slogan: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them”.
When I bothered to check out the Suffolk candidates, however (how many people even did that?), it became obvious that I had to vote, and who for.
Just one of the four pledged to stand up against cuts and privatisation. She also promised, among other mostly good things, to “prioritise action on violence against women and girls, domestic violence” and “hate crime”.
She got my vote.
And if the election had been run on the normal first-past-the-post system generally favoured by the prime minister, she would have won.
It was pretty obvious, though, once the count went down to second-preference votes, that Jane Basham would lose out to Tim Passmore. Those who had picked the Independent or UKIP candidates as first choice were always more likely to favour Tory over Labour for second best.
Which is a pity for Jane Basham and for Suffolk, if the PCC turns out to have any real power.
It’s hard to see, though, what sense of a “mandate” Mr Passmore can possibly take into his new job.
He can only claim to have been the first choice of 5.4 per cent of people eligible to vote.
Suffolk’s 16pc turnout was actually above the national average of 15pc – which would presumably have been lower still if some voters had not been brought out by three parliamentary by-elections and one mayoral election on the same day.
Were the 85pc who didn’t vote motivated – if that’s the word – by apathy, ignorance, or a positive desire to snub the whole business? It was undoubtedly a combination of all those factors.
But they call into serious question the validity of the election itself.
After all, it was only in July that Essex Tory MP Priti Patel declared: “Any ballot in which fewer than half of those eligible to vote do so should be ruled invalid.”
True, she was talking about strike ballots, not jobs for the boys – but what’s sauce for the goose…


RECENTLY, my work has made me familiar with the corner of west London where the Israeli embassy stands. It is commonplace to see British police officers outside it clutching semi-automatic rifles, which is not something I want to get used to seeing.
Last Friday night, while TV screens filled with images of Gaza under fire and Jerusalem in fear, the armed presence outside the embassy was considerably increased. More alarmingly, I saw gun-toting police rushing about among the crowds of shoppers in Kensington High Street.
It was the clearest reminder I ever hope to see of the globalised nature of modern conflict.
It’s hard – no, it’s impossible – to understand or condone the actions of Israel in waging its vicious war of aggression against the Palestinians of Gaza. Once again, the latest upsurge of hostilities seems to be entirely of their doing.
On the other hand, nothing is as clear-cut as so many commentators (and some of my friends) seem to think.
The state of Israel is neither all good nor all bad. And neither is Hamas.
The situation is complex, historically tangled and hard to see a decent or humane way out of. Missile attacks on civilians – of either side – are not decent, humane, or a way out.


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