Britons apathetic about electing police chiefs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 3:52am

Britain goes to the polls tomorrow to choose its first elected police and crime commissioners - but the country's biggest shake-up policing for decades is threatening to end up a damp squib.

Charged with setting out a vision and budget for 41 forces across England and Wales and with the power to sack their chief constables, elected commissioners were billed as the new public face of crime-fighting, holding police to account. But the elections have failed to fire up the public imagination, with some predicting the lowest turnout in British polling history.

"It's the most significant change for half a century in terms of police governance," said Tim Newburn, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics. "These people will have very significant powers over policing. But they're just not part of the public consciousness at the moment."

The Electoral Reform Society predicts that just 18.5 per cent of voters will cast their ballots - which would be the lowest yet in a British election.

Many voters have scant understanding of the commissioners' role, which will see them installed for four-year terms across England and Wales except in London, where the mayor already acts as a quasi-commissioner.

Critics say ministers have failed to publicise the policy, a flagship manifesto promise of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party before it came to power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

The prime minister, who is under pressure to reverse his party's slide in popularity, has admitted it could take years for voters to get behind the idea of elected commissioners.

"Trying to get people to turn out and vote in an age of cynicism and apathy, it's difficult," Cameron told The Times newspaper. "That doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do."