Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 39 – January 2013

A setback for new voting opportunities?

Nationwide elections for a new category of public official, the Police and Crime Commissioner, took place in England and Wales on 15 November 2012. (Note two omissions: London has separate arrangements making the elected Mayor the de facto Police and Crime Commissioner; and Scotland, by way of devolution, has gone its own way. The two exceptions show how devolution and decentralisation are producing diversity of institutional practice in the UK). The turnout was, at 15.1 per cent, by a long way the lowest for any national election under a democratic franchise in Britain. Moreover, the number of spoilt votes was 2.8 per cent, significantly higher than usual, suggesting that many votes were deliberately spoilt as a protest, though against what is not certain. It is accepted that the new Commissioners will be important: they cover very large constituencies (much larger than a Parliamentary constituency); they control very significant budgets; they exercise potentially very great influence over policing practices; and they further extend the range of public officers now selected by elections under a democratic franchise. So what went wrong?

There are some particular explanations for the low turnout: critics of the process argue that the information available to voters was poor; defenders of the innovation of elected Crime Commissioners expect that the subsequent elections will record higher turnouts as voters realise that these are important offices. But readers of PGUK will recognise a familiar pattern. On the one hand, turnout in virtually all elections has been in long term decline in Britain, and this seems to be part of a wider process by which citizens are turning to other forms of participation, like demonstrations, boycotts and petitions. (Chapter 13, 'How citizens participate' documents this.) On the other hand, opportunities to vote have never been greater. To the historic, and infrequent, Parliamentary and local council elections, we have in recent decades added elections for the devolved governments, for the European Parliament, for mayors in several cities, for an Assembly in Greater London. All this, and a multiplicity of referendums on particular issues. The two phenomena – more opportunities to vote, less enthusiasm for voting – are connected, because the multiplication of voting opportunities is part of attempts by political leaders to reconnect voters with elected institutions. These efforts have failed, in the sense that none of the new voting opportunities have led to turnout as high as those for the Westminster House of Commons – and turnout here also seems to be in long term decline. Moreover, the experience of elections for the devolved governments suggests that the hope that electors will turn out in Crime Commissioner elections once they recognise the importance of the institution is misplaced. The devolved governments are undoubtedly important, but turnout has actually declined since the first election: in 1999 exactly 59 per cent voted in Scotland; in 2011 the figure was 49.4. In Hartlepool (one of the authorities outside London to adopt the office of elected mayor) a referendum in November 2012 determined to abolish that office. So the case of the Crime Commissioners conforms to a now established pattern: our political leaders are increasingly keen on elections; and the rest of us are decreasingly enthusiastic.

As ever, the first port of call for any student interested in election results should be the website of the Electoral Commission: in this case