Thursday November 22 2012

Police: Hundred-million facelift disaster

As expected, voters wanted nothing to do with last week’s PCC elections, writes Jim Moody

Arm of the state

David Cameron’s attempt to make good his promise to install “more democratic”, “crime-busting” police and crime commissioners was a £100 million exercise that ended in disaster.

Wiltshire, the first policing area to report a PCC result following the November 16 elections, set the tone for later results from the other 40 policing areas in the rest of the England and Wales. Fewer than 16% of registered electors turned out to vote in Wiltshire, resulting in the successful Tory candidate receiving less than 7% of the electorate’s first-choice support before second-preference votes were added. But the worst of all in a series of uniformly bad results for the government’s PCC plans was in Hampshire, where the independent victor received 3.27% support from the electorate, having gathered an abysmal 22.48% of first-choice votes in a 14.53% turnout (he managed to double his percentage after second-preference votes were added). Turnout ranged from 11.63% in Staffordshire to 19.5% in Northamptonshire - easily the lowest in any national election. The Metropolitan Police area was excluded from these elections, as London’s mayor had previously been granted the powers of a PCC without asking any electors at all.

Some initial responses from the Conservative wing of the establishment were hilarious. Apparently, it was because the PCC posts were so much of a novelty that turnout was so bad and it would, magically, be very much better next time. Oh, and then there was the attempt to claim that the new PCCs definitely had a mandate ... by comparing them with the many MPs elected on a minority vote, who ‘obviously’ must be mandated. But that was even more definitely on a losing wicket. As if the longstanding voting system of ‘first past the post’ could somehow validate this fiasco. Despite desperate subsequent attempts, the overwhelming verdict is in: no PCC received a democratic mandate - not when over 80% of electors refused to participate in the farrago. Reported widely, too, were the large numbers of deliberately spoilt ballot papers: clearly a significant additional two fingers up to Cameron’s government.

Top Labour figures were naturally keen to attack what had been a Tory initiative, though their unbridled enthusiasm for law and order under the existing capitalist state merely led them to call for support for the existing police, including safeguarding funding. Indeed, it was all of a piece with last year’s Labour Party conference in Liverpool, at which party hacks cravenly organised a standing ovation for a police representative who spoke at one of its many debate-free rally sessions.

Before the elections only a small number of Labour PCC candidates could be bothered to respond to questioning by this writer about democratising policing. Ruth Potter, runner-up in North Yorkshire, was one who certainly engaged with the issues. In response to my question, “Can you explain how your election manifesto and programme at this PCC election challenge the class role of the police force?”, she said: “It ensures proper accountability to the people for the work of the police and ensures that the police safeguard all sections of the community - particularly the working class, who tend most likely to be victims of crime.”

I asked: “Were you to be elected as a PCC, how would you avoid the charge of class-collaboration with our working class’s enemy?” To which she replied: “I am no collaborator. I will fight for the most vulnerable!” And to the question, “What position do you take toward the call for the formation of democratic citizen militias as a replacement for the state’s system of police forces?”, she answered: “I have no objection in principle, so long as they don’t end up being vigilantes. We all make history, but not always in circumstances of our own choosing.”

Unsurprisingly, other responses tended toward somehow improving, if not democratising, the existing police. Bob Jones, who was elected PCC in West Midlands, replied: “In the short term our communities need the protection of the current police force, which is being attacked by the government, notably by the Winsor Report,1 whose author wishes to root out working class culture.”

Tal Michael, who was narrowly beaten by an independent, responded: “If I am elected as commissioner for North Wales, my priority will be to ensure that the police do see themselves as working for ‘the public’ rather than for ‘the establishment’. From my dealings with officers at all levels, I have to say that most of them do see themselves as serving the public and therefore I will be pushing at an open door.”

Robert Evans in Surrey stated: “I do believe that the class structure of the police needs to be challenged, as does the whole recruitment process. Finally, I am not sure I agree with you as regards people’s militia as an alternative to the police! Improve the police certainly.”

A previous article on this topic five months ago2 raised several issues from a working class perspective, all still relevant now. Even though some Labour PCC candidates were prepared to discuss questions posed from the left, the rightwing leadership in all its manifestations down the decades has never stirred from a down-the-line commitment to the British state. This is unsurprising and to be expected, given the complaisant, constitutional role the Labour Party has played in fully accepting the monarchical, capitalist status quo.

What continues to be saddening, however, is the role of the left in all of this. In general, the left over the last few months merely reflected the general lack of interest of the masses in this piece of Tory tomfoolery. Indeed, a letter to this paper a couple of weeks ago pointed out how, apart from the article already mentioned, nowhere else in the British left had these elections been discussed.3

It would certainly be incorrect to suggest that these PCC elections should have been boycotted in principle. For example, nothing would have prevented a working class candidate standing for a PCC on a platform advocating a people’s militia in opposition to attempts to tinker with capitalism’s police forces. Of course, it would always be a tactical question whether or not to stand in any election - at least for a Marxist candidate with an organisation of the same stripe behind her or him. But the principle remains: wherever a forum for revolutionary discourse, agitation and propaganda exists there is a prima facie reason to consider Marxist candidacy. Nowhere should be ruled out for working class political work.

Of course, the British left, especially in the Labour Party, is almost invisible these days. The Labour Representation Committee acts as a pole of attraction for the left that is fighting within and beyond the Labour Party. But even the LRC, according to such policy as it holds on the matter, has a way to go in accepting the true nature of the state in capitalist Britain and how we approach questions of law and order, policing, the armed forces and the penal system.

Although not recently aired by the LRC, these questions are surely open for discussion. As it stands, there is, after all, on the LRC website a 2005 New Left Policy Forum document on criminal justice,4 authored by Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, the trade union covering family court and probation staff. Its liberal aims sadly stand in contrast to a working class approach. The sum total of what it has to say on this issue is:

“Policing should be community-based and intelligence-led. Government targets set for the police should be realistic and not conflict with those of other criminal justice agencies. The number of priorities and targets need to be rationalised. There should be real local accountability to boroughs and local authority areas. Decisions to stop and search should be based on intelligence, the quality of the intervention and the outcome. Consideration should be given to encouraging all new police officers to spend a minimum period of time in community liaison. The introduction of identify cards is likely to lead the police into greater conflict with ethnic groups and should be scrapped. All contact with the same ethnic minority groups should be positively improved and indicators developed to maximise visible presence in the community.”

A clear candidate for replacement by a policy document that stands four-square for citizen militias. For beyond what this lean paragraph deals with are much bigger questions - what is the working class alternative to the capitalist state’s policing and why do we need it? Comrade Fletcher does not mention this: but that is what working class partisans have to become adept at developing, especially just now, at a time when the pretence of democratic control of the police has been raised as an issue through these failed PCC elections. Part of that process must be to develop policy in this area, including tackling the mistaken ideas in such documents as that produced by the New Left Policy Forum.

Our class needs illusions in the role of the police like a hole in the head. For over 150 years we have known collectively as a class that the police do not exist to safeguard ‘communities’ in some neutral, classless way, but are there to uphold the current class order. That is why Chartism had the establishment of a well-ordered militia as one of the main planks of its programme. The police are part of what Engels was first to call a “public force ... of armed men”5 (nowadays armed women, too, of course), defining the state that is owned and controlled lock, stock, and barrel by the ruling capitalist class.

There is no getting around this fact and consciously to try to do so cannot but result in class-collaboration. And that is why, ever since Marxism identified citizen militias as a must-have feature, they have appeared in the programme of militant, working class organisations. Today, too, citizen militias have their place as a key element in the way that revolutionaries’ extreme democracy challenges the bourgeois state, putting it on the back foot, and giving backbone to the organised force that will usher in socialism - the working class majority.

Notes

1. Winsor report part 1 (March 8 2011) and part 2 (March 15 2012): http://review.police.uk.

2. ‘Police commissioners or citizen militiasWeekly Worker June 21 2012.

3. Letter from John Masters, November 8.

4. New Left Policy Forum: criminal justice March 2005: http://l-r-c.org.uk/files/criminal_justice_policy_paper.pdf.

5. Frederick Engels Origins of the family, private property and the state chapter 9, ‘Barbarism and civilisation’: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch09.htm.

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