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Opinion

Will the next Wales-wide set of elections reach a new low in terms of turnout?

21 Apr 2024 7 minute read
Alun Michael the PCC for South Wales. Picture by Daniel McDonald (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Martin Shipton

As concern continues about the disengagement from politics of a large section of the Welsh population, there’s a possibility that a new low might be reached on May 2.

People across Wales will have the opportunity to elect one of four Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), depending on where they live.

The expectations of turnout are so low that I’ve heard it said that getting into double figures percentage-wise would be considered a triumph.

Only a small hard core – the kind of tribalistic party loyalist with an inane grin who loves posting pictures of themselves on social media while taking a short break from delivering leaflets – are enthused by this dullest of dull contests.

In the South Wales Police area, the outgoing PCC is Alun Michael, who has held the role since it was created in 2012. Briefly our national leader, his title as head of the National Assembly was First Secretary, as if he was the dour frontman of a clapped-out Communist regime in Eastern Europe.

Having failed spectacularly to live up to the expectations of his sponsor, Tony Blair, he went back to Westminster with his tail between his legs and, after being handed a junior role in government, decided to become the ultimate bureaucrat’s bureaucrat by standing to be the inaugural PCC on his home patch.

So inspired by his candidacy was the local populace that just 14.7% of them took the trouble to vote, of whom 46.95% opted for him, equivalent to 6.9% of the electorate. Only a swivel-eyed loon would describe that as a ringing endorsement.

On May 2, however, whatever charisma Mr Michael may – or may not – have will not be on offer. For the first time since 1973, when he began his lengthy political career as a Cardiff councillor, he won’t hold elected office.

Boycott

But it’s not Mr Michael’s absence from the ballot paper that has former Bridgend council Labour leader Jeff Jones wondering whether he should boycott the PCC election. He first voted at the 1970 general election and hasn’t failed to do so since.

He said: “I was a student at the LSE [London School of Economics] and was registered to vote at home in Maesteg. I got the train to Cardiff and the bus to Maesteg, voted, had some grub with my family and went back to London.

“But I have no interest in this election. I think the role of PCC is a waste of time. Under the old system of police authorities, there were representatives of all the councils in the area and councillors could put questions to the Chief Constable, giving them a tough time. I’m a former police authority member myself, and that certainly used to happen.

“The campaigning I’ve seen on social media at this election is making claims for the PCC role that just don’t stack up. It’s been suggested that the PCC will increase the number of prosecutions. That has nothing to do with the PCC – it’s the Crown Prosecution Service that decides whether people face charges or nor.

“Some candidates are arguing that the criminal justice system should be devolved – but again, that has nothing to do with the PCC. It’s a political question that will be decided by politicians.

“The system has been in place for 12 years now. At the time it was introduced by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, it was said there would be much more accountability, with the PCC holding the Chief Constable to account. I’ve seen no evidence of that. So far as I can see, it’s been quite a cosy set-up, certainly in the South Wales force area. Apart from which, the Lib Dems no longer back the system.

“What’s astonished me recently is that the Labour candidate taking over from Alun Michael, Emma Wools, received an endorsement on a party social media post that said policing was institutionally racist and that Emma would deal with it. That’s a very serious allegation to make. If it’s true, it means that Alun Michael has been Police and Crime Commissioner for 12 years, supposedly holding to account a force that is institutionally racist. Surely he would have to take some of the blame if that’s really the case. As would Emma Wools, who is currently the Deputy PCC.

“Over the 12 years that the PCC system has been operating, has there been a published evaluation of the benefits it has brought to policing? If so, I haven’t seen it. I think it should be scrapped. Instead there should be one police force for Wales and it should be answerable to the Senedd and the Welsh Government.”

Unopposed

Mr Jones was also unhappy about the way Labour candidates had been selected. As Nation.Cymru reported last year, none of the four candidates in Wales went through a competitive process. All were selected unopposed.

There’s a strong whiff of another stitch-up. Some party members received an email with a few days’ notice that there was a deadline approaching by which time they had to declare their interest in becoming a PCC.

Others, including Jeff Jones, are adamant that they had no such email and were completely unaware that selections were taking place. There’s a belief that the candidacies were reserved for the party hierarchy’s chosen ones.

A Labour source told me: “There remains considerable disquiet in Welsh Labour that members were not allowed to select our candidate. In such a low turnout election, it is crucial that members work to get out the vote. Having candidates imposed is not the best way to inspire us to work.”

Outside the Labour Party, there are others who are usually highly politically engaged, yet antagonistic to the PCC elections. Ceri Davies has been a Green Party council candidate in Cardiff and is co-presenter of the impressive Welsh political podcast Hiraeth. He told me he intends to spoil his ballot paper.

“The PCC role isn’t something I’ve taken a great deal of interest in or, to be honest, have much knowledge of,” he said. “Generally speaking, though, I’m not happy about the politicisation of the police. I think it’s totally inappropriate.

“In terms of the way things have turned out, so far as I can see, the PCC system seems to be a breeding ground for political nepotism. I certainly don’t get the impression that there’s much in the way of holding the Chief Constable to account.

“The incident that stands out for me is the tragic case where the two young lads died when their electric bike crashed in Ely after a police chase. It seemed to me that Alun Michael was making public statements exonerating the police before all the facts had come out.”

Will Jeff Jones really boycott the election after being such a dedicated every-time voter for more than half a century? He said: “I may reconsider if I actually get a leaflet from the candidates. So far I’ve had nothing. This is a really weird election.”

Record low

And it’s not inconceivable that it could provide a record low in terms of turnout. There’s no other election in Wales for the PCC one to piggy-back on.

This time, also, voters will be expected to bring photographic ID with them for the first time in Wales. Another disincentive to participation, one might say.

I think of the first multiracial election in South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, with elderly first-time voters celebrating and crying with joy despite queuing for many hours or even days.

And then I think of the likely empty scenes outside – and inside – Welsh polling stations on May 2.

What has become of our democracy?


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L. Edwards
L. Edwards
1 month ago

The only thing I know about the four candidates in Dyfed-Powys is their name and which political party they belong to. What does that tell me about how good any of them would be as PCC? How am I supposed to find out? I could just throw a dart at the ballot paper I suppose. Will probably write a protest on it instead rather than simply not turning up. The system is utterly dysfunctional

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Edwards

Your right. Just because someone shares my political views doesn’t mean that they are best qualified for a job. Police Commissioner role is based more on profession rather than politics. If the Tories had it their way we would be like America and have directly elected Coroners.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Edwards

Agreed. I have no information about any of the candidates for north Wales. I have no idea what their beliefs, aspirations, plans for my community are.

If the only thing I have to go on is their political party, then I would have to make my decision based on politics, rather than who is best for the job. You are right, this system is utterly dysfunctional!

Rob
Rob
1 month ago

Eric Cartman for Police and Crime Commissioner. Respect my Authoritah!!

hdavies15
hdavies15
1 month ago

PCC Office in South Wales looks like a job creation machine for careerists who also happen to be members of The Party. Well paid non jobs preparing them for even better paid non jobs elsewhere in so-called public service. Just a sick joke especially at a time where we can’t get resources deployed where they are needed.

Steffan Gwent
1 month ago

It is no surprise that a large section of the Welsh population as well as former activists are disengaged from politics. When a political party like Plaid Cymru was prepared to give the whip back to disgraced MP Jonathan Edwards who had taken a police caution for domestic violence then people vote with their feet.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

I’m sure if you ask the majority of people on the high street are they going to vote in May and you’ll get the answer ‘what for?’. Apart from a polling card I’ve seen little information on anything to do with this election, it’s very low key. Even if there was more publicity, I doubt the public would be that interested. Many don’t know of the position and have heard nothing from it since it came into being. All this will result in the low voting turnout predicted. As the article says – the position of PCC should be scrapped… Read more »

HarrisR
HarrisR
1 month ago

“What has become of our Democracy?”, says Martin (and Alice)

“It’s dead on its feet! It’s expired!”, replied Humpty Dumpty scornfully. “it’s a patronage machine, a giver of sinecures to the chosen ones, it’s a club, a mutual benefit society, and apologies all round, YOU AIN’T A MEMBER!”

Alice wept softly, “things must change, they will wont they? Our dreams?” The Dormouse quietly consoled her by putting more LSD in the Wales teapot

Ap Kenneth
1 month ago

A monumental waste of money, time and resources in an age when Westminster continues to bang the drum of austerity they are handing out well paid political patronage.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
1 month ago

I see little benefit from having a PCC. Seems like money for old rope. No doubt the Labour Party will be aiming for a stitch, maybe even to attract some donations from criminal gain.

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago

This position is costing me a lot of money every year and I see no benefit. Call the police (not 999) and you have to wait. Try to report a nuisance and someone may come around tomorrow, complain that speeds past a pedestrian crossing are routinely high, told it was checked last year and considered OK and no resources to monitor. Scrap it. I will vote cos I have a vote, but that paper could well be spoiled just so it is counted (not that that will do a lot). Best thing I can hear about a manifesto from one… Read more »

adrian savill
adrian savill
1 month ago

Keep writing Martin…

Dafydd Williams
Dafydd Williams
29 days ago

Maybe he is an outlier, but the Plaid Cymru PPC for Dyfed-Powys has proved an asset, providing a valuable link between public and police. And last time I recall he put out a substantial election address. I do think though it is high time for policing and the courts to be fully devolved to Senedd Cymru. It makes no sense for Westminster to pull the strings.

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