Trust the Voters

Your hands are sweating. Your throat is dry. Cameras roll in the background. You have swung through more emotions in the last few minutes than you usually do in a year. You have worked for months for this moment. Somehow you have still had only seconds to prepare. Beside you a man is speaking in a formal, measured voice. You hear your name and step towards a microphone. Welcome to election day.

I always believe I could win the election for Police and Crime Commissioner in Dyfed Powys. Not that it made my nerves any less. I had nothing to go on but gut feeling, but I that was good. Had I read the media predictions I might have written my chances off. Luckily, I didn’t.

We have a lot to learn from the first PCC elections. First, I hope we all learn, and see, that PCCs provide a huge opportunity. They can bring fresh ideas, new people and new energy to our most important public services.

We can learn from the politics too. Like Ann Barnes, elected in Kent, I didn’t detect apathy on the streets. I detected frustration. People wanted to exercise their democratic right. They just didn’t feel they had the information, so they stayed at home.

Voters have an incredible knack of telling politicians what they want. They are always more sophisticated than political pundits credit. We must listen to them better.

Voters told us three things. They are fed up. They want independent people. And, they don’t like political re-treads.

Low turnout and spoilt ballots show the fed up part. Part of this was the lack of information, but the by elections in Manchester barely turned out more than Dyfed Powys at about 18%.

Some of this was due to the November date. Much was due to bad organisation, particularly for the PCC elections. I spoke to many who rang the government number to ask for printed election statements. The paperwork never arrived. Some was sent to the wrong address.

It’s not that the information couldn’t be found. It’s that people feel politicians are hiding from them if they don’t receive information directly. That breeds suspicion. Suspicion breeds resentment. Finally, a resentful electorate decides not to play. We cannot blame them.

Independents won in 12 police force areas. I do not see anything bad in this. Voters looked for particular skills for a particular political job. Party allegiance was not high on the list. One of the criticisms of these elections was that the Parties would dominate. They didn’t. That is a good thing – even though I represented one.

A BBC interviewer asked me whether this was a role for political re-treads. Actually, my greatest advantage was that I hadn’t held political office before. I’ve had a career outside of politics. And, just as importantly, my opponent had a long record of political mediocrity.

I didn’t know it at the time, but a similar story was playing out across the country. Voters rejected known politicians for new faces. In Humberside and Hampshire relative unknowns beat big names. In Surrey, West Mercia and North Wales, Independents took areas parties expected to win.

There are lessons here for everyone. Politicians must learn to talk to voters before voters turn on them. As Sam Chapman argues more fully here, Parties must wise up, reform their selection processes and be prepared to endorse Independents.

Most of all, we PCCs must establish our place as impartial, respected and influential in local politics. We have much to do to deliver safer neighbourhoods, but we must also explain our role properly in the coming years.

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