The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are on the horizon, and with the previous election turn out recorded as 15%, Dr Steve Tong, Director of Policing and Criminal Justice at Canterbury Christ Church University, explores how democratic the elections really are.

The PCC proposal in the Conservative manifesto in 2010 boasted: “We will replace the existing, invisible and unaccountable police authorities and make the police accountable to a directly-elected individual who will set policing priorities for local communities”. This would empower communities providing ‘democratic control’.

However, the average turn out for the first PCC elections in 2012 was approximately 15%. Independent candidates fared well with 12 candidates elected, the Conservatives winning 16 and Labour 13 posts. Criticism of the promotion of the elections, the lack of awareness of voters, spoilt papers in protest against the elections and differential funding were some of the issues raised in the media.

This time round, PCCs had four years in a role characterised by budget cuts and reforms. There is no doubt that PCCs have been more visible than the predecessor, the police authority. However, there are still concerns over the perceived effectiveness of PCCs on crime, the maintenance of the operational independence of Chief Constables and the increasing politicisation of policing.

First and foremost, if the PCCs are to be seen as a successful democratic reform, then they must be seen as democratic. This would suggest that a significantly higher turnout is needed. Newly introduced elections tend to receive improved turnout on the second election. Having the elections earlier in the calendar year in May (as oppose to in 2012 when it was held in November) and alongside local government elections may improve turnout. Greater awareness of the role of the PCC is likely but the messages candidates will want to promote will depend on funding and campaign expertise of their respected teams.

The campaign will no doubt reflect themes ranging from anti-privatisation, commitments to cut crime, improved responses to cyber enabled crime, through to supporting vulnerable victims. The elections this time round will be as much about trying to get the public to vote at all as to decide between candidates. The challenge in this PCC elections is whether the democratic experiment in policing can live up to aspirations.

Canterbury Christ Church University is holding a public event, Meet the PCC Candidates on Thursday 28 April at 6.30pm, in the Powell Lecture Theatre on the North Holmes Campus. Parking is available and is accessible through Gate 1 on the North Holmes Road. Find out more.