Poll results show elections for newly created posts are at risk from very low turnout, which could benefit extremist candidates
The risk of extremist candidates being elected to police and crime commissioner posts has been exposed by a poll showing that nearly 80% of the public know nothing or very little about the elections, underlining the likelihood of a low turnout of voters.
Elections for police and crime commissioner jobs are being held in November, covering 41 constabularies in England and Wales. They have been presented as part of David Cameron’s attempt to make forces more accountable.
Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, has described the elections as the biggest change to policing since 1829.
But a survey looking at voters’ knowledge about the poll shows few people know the elections are to take place or understand the purpose of the new posts.
The Populus poll, commissioned by Centreground Political Communications, revealed that 57% of those questioned did not know anything about the elections, and a further 24% “not know much about them”. Of women polled, 71% said they had not heard anything about the elections.
The home secretary, Theresa May, has promised to do more to build up awareness, but the poll suggests she faces an uphill task to prevent pitiful turnouts.
Lack of awareness about the elections is highest among those in the east of England, where 74% had not heard anything about them. This compared with 48% of those in Yorkshire and Humberside, and 48% in the south-west who knew nothing of them. It is possible that the announcement by the former deputy prime minister John Prescott that he will stand for a post in Humberside has increased awareness in the region.
Paul Richards, standing to be Labour’s Ccommissioner candidate in Sussex, said: “There is a real danger that a low turnout will benefit extremist candidates. That would be a disaster for the police force.
“We have already seen in the European parliament elections how low turnout can lead to extremist parties like the BNP being elected. A member of the English Democrats has been elected mayor in Doncaster.”
Labour is due to select its candidates after postal ballots in June. The Conservatives are to select at all-member meetings in July.
The Liberal Democrats seem unlikely to put up a slate of candidates.
Although it is expected that many independent candidates, including former chief constables, will stand, only a few announcements have been made so far.
Of those people asked how they would vote, 28% said they would probably choose a candidate from the political party they normally supported; 26% said they might vote for an independent candidate.
Older people were more likely than younger people to vote for an independent candidate; 10% of those aged 18 to 24 would do this, rising to 39% of those aged 65 and over.
The Populus poll, which was conducted on 8 May, showed that being tough on crime was regarded as the single most important quality for a candidate (47%), followed by experience (44%). Being able to work across communities was regarded as important by only 29%. Labour was seen by those polled as most likely to produce the best candidates (19%), followed by the Conservatives (13%).
Darren Murphy, chief executive of the consultancy Centreground Political Communications, said: “These elections are unique in our democratic history. The challenge for the political parties is to engage the public interest in new ways whilst not appearing to be politicising policing.”