Police and Crime Commissioners: The forgotten elections

3 May 2016

On May 5, England and Wales will elect police and crime commissioners (PCCs) for the second time, though you may not know about them. What are these elections about, who is in the race, and who will win are all important questions that surround a largely unheard election. In this article, Dr Kenneth Bunker covers the history of PCC elections, previous results, and some relevant statistics and electoral forecasts for this year.

The first PCCs were elected in 2012 to serve for three-and-a-half years. Before then, the role of PCCs was fulfilled by a board of police authorities, typically made up of 17 members, chosen from a combination of elected politicians and appointed independents, and directly accountable to Parliament. Starting this year, commissioners are set to be directly elected for four-year terms, to serve a maximum of two consecutive terms in power.

In 2016 they are scheduled to be elected in 40 of the 43 territorial police forces. The elected Mayor of London is classed as the commissioner for the Metropolitan Police District; the Court of Common Council is the commissioner for the City of London; and the position in Greater Manchester Police is due to be merged with the newly established Greater Manchester Mayor next year, and as such will not hold elections this year.

PCC elections use the supplementary vote system, in which voters can mark the ballot with their first and second preferences. After votes are counted, candidates with more than 50% of the vote are declared winners. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two vote-getters go on to a second round in which second preference votes of the eliminated candidates are reallocated. Candidates with more than 50% of those votes are declared winners in the second round.

Table 1 shows that in 2012 the Conservative Party won the election, electing 16 PCCs (39%), the Labour Party came in close second, electing 13 commissioners (32%), and independents came in third, bundling up 11 members (27%). The remaining slot went to Kevin Hurley, representing the Zero Tolerance Policing list. Labour led the election in the first round, with 32% of the vote, while Conservatives were the preferred party in the second round, accumulating 38.4% of the vote.

Only 8 of the 41 elections were decided in the first round. All of the independents were elected in the second round. In the majority of cases, the winner in the first round won in the second round. However, in six cases the reverse occurred, the second most voted candidate in the first round, won in the second round. Of these six cases, five were independent candidates. This suggests that the supplementary voting system favours “consensus” candidates.

Table 1. England and Wales police and crime commissioner elections, 2012
Table 1. England and Wales police and crime commissioner elections, 2012

A takeaway from the 2012 election was the extremely low turnout. Of the 36 million registered voters, only five million decided to show up. In other words, only 15.1% of registered voted exercised their right to vote, securing the lowest recorded level of participation at a peace time non local government election in the UK. As a reference, turnout is between 60% and 70% in Westminster elections and around 50% in the devolved parliamentary elections of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. One explanation that has been put forward, to account for the low turnout, is that people were not aware of the election. In a poll cited by the Electoral Commission, eligible voters agreed that they lacked information on the elections; 28% said that they knew “nothing at all” about the election, and 48% said they “did not know very much”. Only 24% said that they knew “a great deal” or a “fair amount”.

It is no surprise then that this year there seems to be less people interested in running as candidates. In 2016, only 129 candidates will run – 63 fewer than in the first election. However, like in 2012, Conservatives and Labour will field candidates in every constituency. While UKIP and the Liberal Democrats will marginally increase their presence, the number of independent candidates will shrink twofold.

Some preliminary conclusions can be draw in anticipation to the upcoming PCC elections. First, it is highly likely that the bulk of the candidates elected will come from the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and independents. Indeed, in the previous election, the three took 98% of the seats. It is likely that this will happened again. Indeed, registered voters tend to vote for partisan reasons, ignoring the name and record of candidates.

A second preliminary conclusion is that turnout will remain low, but will likely increase in comparison to the previous election. In 2012, PCC stood alone, increasing the likelihood of registered voters, unfamiliar with the candidates, of staying home on election night. Also, as the first election, they lacked information and interest. In contrast, in 2012 PCC elections will be held concurrent to English local elections, increasing both information and interest.

While it seems overwhelming likely that Conservative and Labour and independents will dominate the upcoming elections, it is positive news that other parties have decided to increase their number of candidates fielded. This is important for diversity of views in the institution. The prospects of a higher turnout is also good news, given that higher participation levels are associated with a stronger perception of legitimacy. It would be a great triumph for the newly established elections.

This post represents the views of the author, who writes in a personal capacity, and not those of Democratic Dashboard or the LSE.

Dr Kenneth Bunker is a PhD in Political Science from London School of Economic. He is also Director of Tresquintos.com, an electoral forecasting website focused on Latin America.