Labour published their crime and justice pledges last week. We can expect party manifestos in the coming days.
On one level, what the election means for police reform is fairly straight forward. It will determine whether PCCs survive. Labour will abolish them. The Conservatives will keep them.
But look a little further and the answer is less clear. Labour’s plan, insofar as they have one, doesn’t explain what would replace PCCs. It talks about a victims law and odd technical changes to procurement and firearms licenses. But it offers no vision, no purpose to reform that protects people or secures our liberties in an age with less money.
We must govern our police. The question is, how? And particularly, how in the context of falling budgets and the rotten state of local government?
In our democracy we have local, independent police forces. They act as a check on central power, stopping any one force – or the government itself – getting too powerful. That means each force must answer to local, independent oversight. Hence, police and crime commissioners are directly elected by local people.
Whatever you think of them, PCCs go with the grain of recent reform. They are devolution writ large. They take power out of Whitehall, in the same vein as changes in Scotland. And they are directly accountable, like Manchester’s new mayor.
They have financial freedoms which mean they can cross traditional boundaries between organisations. They can make local decisions to cope with falling budgets.
In Dyfed Powys, for example, I have used those freedoms to increase the number of officers, invest more in support for victims of domestic and sexual violence and improve justice for victims with fewer cautions. And I have reduced the overall cost to taxpayers.
If the government had cut police budgets without also reforming the police we would have had just less policing. As it is, we can use reform to deliver more – or better – with smaller budgets.
Britain is still coming to terms with the loss of old certainties. We have less money than we thought. We are less inclined to trust institutions than we were. We expect our services to recognise us a individuals, not numbers. We have access to more information, more quickly than ever. Power is more personal.
Labour have not come up with an answer to meet these changes. So far they propose more central direction – merging police forces, confusing local accountability, directing procurement from London – taking decisions further away and trusting people less.
Theirs are the instincts of the old authoritarian left: what we can’t control, we destroy; what we can control, we throw money at.
A Labour government backed by the SNP, whose authoritarianism already runs rampant in Scotland, would turn back a tide of reform that began before even this coalition Government. They are a backward-looking, reality-denying prospect.
Whether police and crime commissioners stay or go is for Parliament to decide. But if they do, be careful what replaces them.
Strong, clear governance benefits the police as much as the public. Don’t be surprised if what emerges from a Labour government drags the police back into the mire of local government committee-ism. That is Labour’s comfort zone. It is also the graveyard of innovation.
Now is not the time for turning back.