Could Police & Crime Commissioners be a line of defence against Priti Patel?

Meme by the author

Priti Patel has sunk to a new low. She has a legal obligation to “assist the coronial inquest by identifying and securing evidence from potential witnesses” when deaths occur in detention. Despite this duty, on April 15th a court found that she went ahead with efforts to deport potential witnesses in a 2019 case. According to Jamie Bell, one of the solicitors involved in the case, “This risked scuppering the future coronial proceedings in this case and may have prevented the failings that led to a man’s death in custody from being identified.”

Was this a clumsy attempt at another Home Office cover-up? After all, deaths in police custody, especially when they go unnoticed for twelve hours, make the kind of headlines governments abhor. As the victim was of African ethnicity, it would have raked up one of the Tories’ most inglorious hours: the Windrush Scandal.

What are we going to do about Priti Patel? After being found to be acting like a fifth columnist while a cabinet minister in Theresa May’s government, she should never have been allowed to serve as a minister again. She returned to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet on grounds of ideology rather than competence. Unfortunately, Johnson just loves rubbing our noses in it. Not only did he place an unsuitable MP in one of the four top offices of state, but he exonerated her when she was found to have breached the ministerial code by bullying staff at the Home Office. Johnson also authorised the pay-out of £340,000 of taxpayers’ money to buy off one of her victims from taking her to an industrial tribunal.

Clearly the ministerial code, with a foreword signed by Johnson himself, is not worth the paper it is written on. It is not even fit to use as toilet paper. Besides driving staff to attempt suicide by bullying them and shipping out witnesses before they can shop anyone under her purview for wrongdoing, Patel’s greatest hits in the 21 months she has served as Home Secretary include:

  • repeatedly denigrating members of the legal profession who are doing their job upholding the law and preventing the arbitrary abuse of power by government. She labelled them ‘activists’, a comment leading to an incident of a man entering a legal practice armed with a knife  and threatening staff;
  • putting forward a draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that gives greater protection to statues than to girls, women or even pets, threatens both the ancient right to roam and our human right to peaceful protest;
  • threatening to deploy gunboats against desperate refugees in flimsy dinghies and shutting down all legal routes to the UK for child refugees;
  • gloating about having ruined millions of British lives and livelihoods by ending their right of Freedom of Movement, shrinking the area of the planet where we can freely live, study, work, set up a business and retire by 90 per cent, and
  • the infamous non-apology over the government’s abject failure to supply sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to NHS staff after it was revealed that several of them had died of coronavirus.

That “I’m sorry if you feel there have been failings” non-apology was delivered from a lectern at 10 Downing Street, even as Patel’s colleagues were lining the pockets of family, friends and donors with taxpayers’ money via overpriced public contracts they were ill-equipped to execute. Many of those contracts were fulfilled with either faulty products, or by changing the use-by date on expired product, or not fulfilled at all. Indeed, part of the problems with customs post-Brexit was down to UK ports being blocked with containers full of dodgy PPE we will never use.

Never mind what we can do about Priti Patel – is there anything we can do at all against the tsunami of abuse, authoritarian law and bad faith she has unleashed against the British populace? Should we just batten down the hatches, ride out the next three years, and hope the electorate will somehow come to its senses and vote the corruption-ridden, sleaze-laden Tories out? No. We must start to fight back now, and do so by ‘putting all the good chances on our side’, as an old French saying goes. We can start with the up-coming Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections.

“What?” I hear you say. Turnout was only 15.1 per cent in 2012 when the role was introduced, and only increased to 26.6 per cent in 2016 when it became better understood. Still, you could be forgiven for thinking that the great British public are just not that into PCCs. That may be because here too, despite the use of the supplementary vote system (SV – explained in more detail further down) the Conservatives won the most PCC elections with only the second-highest vote-share. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

However, the low turn-out and the SV system mean that a sudden surge in activism leading to a higher voter turnout could make a huge difference. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Priti Patel woke up on May 7th having lost most of the Tory-held PCCs? But I am getting ahead of myself…

What use is a PCC?

The role of a PCC is to be the voice of the people and to hold the police to account, to make them answerable to the communities they serve. PCCs work with the police to cut crime and deliver an effective and efficient police service within their force’s area. In consultation with the Chief Constable of the force, PCCs set the local precept (which is the police element of the local council tax charge), decide the strategic direction and aims for that force through the Police and Crime Plan, and determine how funding relating to policing and reducing crime is spent.

Here’s the biggie: PCCs also contribute to the national and international policing capabilities set out by the Home Secretary.

Unlike our Home Secretary, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) has demonstrated that it is in favour of proportionate policing that respects democracy at the local as well as central level. Here are three examples of how it has demonstrated this:

  • In the run-up to Brexit, the APPC informed the Home Secretary and wider government on various occasions as to why it was absolutely essential to keep the UK in EU initiatives like Europol, the European Arrest Warrant and security systems like SIS-II, ECRIS and SIENA. Not doing so would make us less safe.
  • The APPC has said the extra police powers in Patel’s PCSC Bill are surplus to requirements and the provisions against peaceful protest go too far — these are local matters for chief constables in discussion with their PCC, best dealt with by the force on the ground.
  • After Wiltshire PCC candidate Liz Webster launched her Pet Theft Reform campaign last year, Priti Patel finally agreed to look into the matter on LBC radio in February this year. Then, she quietly told Ms Webster’s Tory rival four days later that she thought the existing law (which does not recognise animals as pets but as inanimate property) was sufficient. The APPC took up the baton and launched an enquiry into the public’s experience and perceptions on pet theft.

How does the supplementary vote system work?

The Electoral Reform Society explains SV as follows:

“There are two columns of boxes alongside the candidates’ names on the ballot paper. One column of boxes is for voters to mark their favourite candidate with an X and the other in which to mark a second favourite with an X. Voters don’t have to mark a second favourite if they do not have one. Voters can put an X in both boxes for one candidate, but this is effectively the same as just marking your favourite and no additional benefit comes from this.

If no candidate gets over 50 per cent of the vote, the top two candidates continue to a run-off and all other candidates are eliminated.

If your favourite candidate gets through, your vote is counted for them in the run-off. If your first choice did not get through but your second choice did, your vote goes to that second choice. The run-off candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.

As you can imagine, Priti Patel hates SV, because it means a far greater proportion of votes count and that can lead to the defeat of the Tory candidate, if progressive voters cast their votes tactically. She has set out plans to scrap SV. According to Jack Kessler’s analysis, Priti Patel “announced this with impressive insouciance” because the Tories fear their London mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, is about to be trounced in the election by incumbent Sadiq Khan under the SV system.

The benefit of SV from a voter’s perspective is that it encourages candidates to seek a wider base of support. That’s why it is worth fighting to keep this voting system in place.

What’s the plan?

Let’s send a message to Priti Patel by using the power of the ballot box, like this:

(a) make sure you are registered to vote in the May 6th election (this includes people who were previously registered, but have moved); you have until Monday 19 April.

(b) vote for non-Conservative PCC candidates, even if you normally only ever vote Conservative;

(c) use both first and second preference votes wisely to maximise the chances of defeating the Conservative candidate;

(d) get family and friends to do the same, and

(e) join local ‘get the vote out’ initiatives in the next three weeks to maximise turnout.

Ideally, your first choice will be the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative. If not, vote tactically, making your first choice the progressive candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative, and your favourite candidate as your second.

If you can’t bring yourself to do that, then vote for your favourite first and the one most likely to defeat the Conservative second.

We can only stop the rot if enough people stop voting for rotters.

Belarus is the only other country in Europe that uses the ‘first past the post’ system in their elections —and look at the government they’ve got.

One day, when we have a more democratic electoral system in place, we will all be able to vote for the candidates we really want, rather than the one calculated to keep out someone we absolutely don’t want.

One fine day, candidates will be more in the mould of Ted Hastings than an Establishment stooge.

One fine day, the quality and calibre of the candidate will determine voters’ choice rather than colour of rosette.

Until that day dawns, tactical voting in elections is one of the few tools we have to effect positive change.