The forgotten local elections – Conservatives defied predictions here too

Chris Game

You’d not have known it from the national media, either before Election Day or since, but the 650 parliamentary contests weren’t the only ones taking place in the UK last Thursday. It was the year in local government’s four-year election cycle that almost all English district and unitary councils – 279 of 293 – had elections, and there were votes too for six mayors, for many parish and town councils, plus the odd local referendum.

There were no council elections in London, Scotland or Wales, but English voters – many doubtless to their surprise – were confronted by up to five ballot papers. Those in Bedford, for example, had votes for an MP, a mayor, two borough councillors, up to 11 parish councillors, and a referendum on their Police and Crime Commissioner’s proposal to increase Council Tax – the first ever of its kind. The proposal – specifically for a 15.8% increase in the Police and Crime Commissioner’s portion of council tax – was rejected by nearly 70% to 30%: Yes 91,086; No 207,551.

These multiple ballots offered electors the obvious opportunity for split-voting: one for their MP or national government, and another more personal, local or protest vote. Minor parties and independents in the council elections could be expected to be chief beneficiaries, but, as shown in the nearly complete results table, that was another ‘expert’ prediction largely confounded.

Blog 11th May

9,500 local elections are even trickier to predict than 650 parliamentary ones, and few are daft or brave enough to try. Those who do will start from the baseline of four years ago – 2011 here – when these actual seats were last fought, compare that year’s results with current national opinion polls, and hope.

2011 was surprisingly good for the Conservatives, a year into their far from popular Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They gained votes from disaffected Lib Dems, and the coinciding electoral reform referendum galvanised their own supporters. This time, though, the national election effect was expected to boost the turnout of Labour and Lib Dem voters.

The poll standings of both main parties had dropped significantly since 2011. But, with the Conservatives the more damaged by UKIP’s dramatic rise, and defending twice as many seats as Labour, the latter was predicted to make most net gains, with the Lib Dems not suffering “too badly” in losing perhaps “around 50 seats”.

If these predictions echoed those for the General Election, then so did the outcome. The Conservatives were unambiguous winners of these local elections, Labour not just net, but absolute, losers, and the Lib Dems suffered as painfully as they did nationally.  UKIP made progress, but less than it hoped, and the Greens flatlined.

For the Conservatives, their more than 30 gains – mostly, it should be noted, councils previously under arithmetically No Overall Control – will take the local headlines. Two particularly satisfying results, though, will be the retained control in their only two metropolitan boroughs – Solihull and Trafford – both with additional seats. Solihull Greens lost a seat, but, with the Lib Dems losing two, they are still the official opposition.

Conservative unitary council gains include Basingstoke & Deane, Poole, and Bath & North East Somerset, where there are now two Greens, but 14 fewer Lib Dems and a first-time Conservative majority. Districts won include traditionally Independent Babergh, Suffolk, also for the first time in its 41-year history; Amber Valley, Gravesham and North Warwickshire straight from Labour; Hinckley & Bosworth from the Lib Dems; Gloucester, St Albans, Scarborough, Winchester, and Worcester.

Further Labour losses to No Overall Control included Walsall metropolitan borough and the unitaries, Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent. There was a little compensation perhaps in hanging on to a knife-edge majority in Bradford, thanks to Independents, UKIP and Respect all losing seats, and gaining majorities in unitary Stockton-on-Tees, and, after a suspended recount and overnight rest, Cheshire West & Chester.

Labour is also now largest party on Brighton & Hove council, since 2011 the UK’s first to be run by the Greens. As in the General Election, the Greens’ recent membership surge didn’t really translate into hard results, though they will be encouraged by seven gains in Labour-dominated Bristol, bringing them within touching distance of official opposition.

This time UKIP was the history maker. UKIP leader Nigel Farage had failed to become Thanet South’s MP, but his party reduced Thanet district’s Labour councillors from 24 to 4 and, with 33 of its own, won overall control of its first principal council.

Good Lib Dem news was at a premium all weekend, but enough of Bedford’s conscientious voters gave their mayoral ballot paper X to Lib Dem Dave Hodgson to re-elect him comfortably for a third term as the borough’s mayor.

In other mayoral votes, Peter Soulsby was re-elected for Labour in Leicester, Gordon Oliver for the Conservatives in Torbay, and Mansfield’s three-term Independent Tony Egginton was succeeded by his Mansfield Independent Forum colleague, Kate Allsop.

Another Independent, Mike Starkie, was elected as the first mayor of Copeland in Cumbria, while in Middlesbrough three-term Independent Ray Mallon has retired and is replaced by Labour’s Dave Budd – though only after a second preference count and the rejection of large numbers of spoilt ballots, presumably from the many Labour members who, despite the result, want the mayoral system abolished.

In these mayoral elections at least, then, there’s something for almost everyone: Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, and Independent.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Crime on the high street goes missing

John Raine

For almost two decades now the statistics for recorded crime in England and Wales have been falling.  And even though there has always been a difference, of some magnitude, between the numbers gathered through the British Crime Survey – a large-scale sample of the public’s experiences of crime victimisation – and the (persistently smaller) statistics compiled by the police, there has been broad agreement at least in the downward trend.

No doubt this has given much cause for encouragement within government, particularly in these recent years of economic recession when most criminologists had been predicting a reversal in the trend – at least for acquisitive crime.   The official statistics suggest this has simply not happened.  But have we been seeing the whole picture, it must be asked?

Probably not, would be one conclusion to be drawn from a recent report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) – a report that draws attention to the considerable scale and growth of crime on our High Streets.  The statistics (annually collected by BRC) and were based on surveys of just thirty retailing organisations.  But they were among the largest such enterprises, together accounting for just over half of national retail turnover.  They show 2012/13 to have experienced among the highest levels of shop-theft for nine years, with a total of more than 631,000 such incidents recorded, and at a cost to the retail industry of around £511 million last year.

But then come the most surprising revelations – that just 9 per cent of these crime incidents were ever reported to the police, and that the reporting rate here was 12 per cent lower than in the preceding year, 2011-12.  Here then, appears to be a very different perspective on crime in Britain in a recessionary period.  Certainly the low reporting rate to the police indicates that the official crime statistics miss a significant proportion of acquisitive crime, and the suggestion in the report is that the main reason lies in diminishing confidence in the police to respond.

This latter point, of course, is hardly new – the British Crime Survey has consistently found high levels of non-reporting of petty crime to be due to lack of public confidence in the police to respond, still less to be able to apprehend the offender and recover any lost property.  For most people, we are told, the main value in reporting property crime to the police is to obtain a crime number to assist with an insurance claim.

But what of the situation on the High Street?  As well as arguing for improvements in the reporting and recording of shop-thefts and other retail crime, and for better law enforcement (from reporting through to prosecution), the BRC report presses the case for a more concerted focus on business crime by local police forces.  In this respect it is interesting to note from our own research here at the University of Birmingham that an analysis of the Police and Crime Plans – the statutory strategy documents produced last year by each Police and Crime Commissioner, and which establish the priorities for policing locally over a five year period – revealed that, while almost all included generalised commitments towards the reduction and prevention of crime, specific reference to High Street crime, or to initiatives to address the problems identified in the BRC report, were few and far between. Similarly, it was notable that, while around one in three of the Plans established the improvement of public confidence in policing as a priority to be addressed, very few references were to be found to the extremely low level of confidence in police responsiveness among retailers.

In light of this report, perhaps some further reflection is called for, both on our perspectives about crime trends and on the priorities for policing.

john raine

John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV. He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors.

Building public trust in policing? The contribution of Police and Crime Commissioners, one year on

John Raine

The ‘Plebgate’ saga, which has now drawn apologies to Andrew Mitchell from three chief constables, has once again raised questions about police integrity and dented public trust and confidence in policing more generally. Building such trust was, of course, one of the Coalition Government’s arguments for introducing Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) – and, as the first anniversary of those elections is now close upon us; it seems timely to consider what difference PCCs have so far made.

It was, we all remember, an inauspicious start; with an embarrassingly low electoral turn-out (averaging less than 12 per cent) because of poor advance publicity on the new PCC role; failure to provide most voters with candidate election leaflets, and choice of a November polling date when no other local or national elections were taking place. Moreover, matters seemed to get worse in subsequent months with critical media headlines concerning the appointment of deputy commissioners and youth commissioners; reports of disagreements and discord with chief constables, and discontent over policy priorities and budget decisions.

But one year on, with PCCs becoming established in their roles, the picture has begun to look rather more settled. It is, for sure, too soon to assess the impacts – beneficial and otherwise – of the new police governance framework. But a recent round of ‘stock-take’ interviews with a small sample of PCCs (including Conservative, Labour and Independent office holders), has highlighted at least two key respects in which the directly-elected model of governance already seems distinctly different from the previous regime of Police Authorities.

First: the new PCCs are giving much more priority to public engagement – they are out and about on a near daily basis, presenting themselves and taking feedback at council meetings, in open public meetings, and indeed, in shopping precincts and market squares around their (very large) patches. They are also all actively exploiting the potential of Facebook, Twitter and other social media in reaching-out and communicating and handling considerably more direct correspondence (email and post) and telephone calls from citizens. Their public profile is already much higher than that of Police Authorities.

Second: there is a stronger sense of ‘local leadership’ to their work. The Home Office has admirably resisted the temptation to try to drive the new system and impose its own perspectives and priorities on PCCs. Although cuts in all police budgets have been driven by reductions in Home Office grants, Westminster and Whitehall have generally allowed PCCs to get on with the job locally as each considers best. As a result, there is more diversity between the PCCs with regard to their approach and priorities in the role than was previously apparent with Police Authorities.

Relationships and accountabilities with chief constables and with other criminal justice and local governance agencies are intriguingly variable, as each PCC brings their own personality and preferred style to the role. Indeed, it is clear that the different career backgrounds and experiences of each PCC are colouring and shaping their approach to the role and their priorities.

By the time of the next PCC elections – scheduled for May 2016 – it will be interesting to gauge the significance and durability of these early signs of change towards stronger democratic engagement and local accountability, and to see what, if any, are the implications for public trust and confidence in policing. At least a more lively public debate and much higher turn-out are surely to be expected next time.


John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV. He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors.

PCCs and appointments – When the word ‘fire’ is a verb!

Ian Briggs

This week, the news media is full of concern for certain newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) making personal appointments to their staff.  At face value it does seem rather strange that we are replacing one partially elected body with a handful of appointees with another, but perhaps a more serious issue does sit behind this rather ticklish situation.

In the run up the last year’s election of PCCs, it was highlighted that central to their role would be the power to ‘hire and fire’ Chief Constables – all police officers are technically ‘Agents of the Crown’ and therefore fall outside the scope of much of UK employment law as applied to the remainder of us. Therefore, it is more than reasonable that certain safeguards need to be in place that represent the interests of those who foot the bill for them – us. With PCCs now firmly in place the Home Secretary and other Ministers could put their heads on the pillow at night safe in the knowledge that if any abhorrent Chief Constable were to go off the rails (just think Greater Manchester Police some years back) it would be the PCC who had to deal with this – and if they did make a bit of a hash of dealing with it they could turn around and wash most of the dirt off their hands, by saying “you elected the PCC and they have the powers” so let them get on with it!

But how can you offer an elected individual the power – invested in them through the ballot box – to ‘fire’ if you cannot allow them to hire? If we must trust the PCC to make the right decisions in holding the Chief Constable to account over their performance in the job then does it not follow that we must also trust them to make the right appointments? What we need to concentrate upon here is the word ‘trust’. There is a case to be made that we have seen a progressive erosion of the level of trust that we in civil society place in public officials with successive populist headlines in the press of ‘councillors with their noses in the trough’, senior officers with salaries in multiples higher than the PM and now ‘jobs for the boys’ (and girls) appointed by PCC’s.  In other countries, and foremost amongst these is the USA, much is made of the ‘revolving door’ issue of elected officials bringing in with them a cadre of appointees only to see them disappear when the winds of political change blow and a new mayor or ‘Commissioner’ is brought in.

So what is at question here is the whole issue of executive powers invested in someone through an open and fair democratic election. It would be a fair bet that in more than one police authority there is someone looking carefully at the content of the ‘swearing in’ oath that the PCC made. For decades Tony Benn amongst others has observed that we are often too concerned with the mechanisms of giving power to people and not enough attention is made of who has the power to take that power away from them.

In the final analysis, any democratic society must be judged on the basis of where real power lifes – is it in the hand of the elected or in the hands of the electors? Any lack of transparency or any fudging of this will always lead to problems. There can be little doubt that an already democratically infirm role such as the PCC is now further weakened by these recent revelations and it will take all the political skills that elected PCCs have to bring to bear and shore up the trust we hold in them.

But is it not the weakness of Ministers in not seeing this potential moral hazard in the first place? Any fracturing of trust in PCCs could be potentially problematic upstream for the Home Office, the Cabinet and all those who made the rash statement in the run up to the elections that PCCs were not intended to be in any way political.  Perhaps the Home Secretary may not be able to rest her head on her pillow at night safe in the knowledge that if something does go pear-shared, others will take the blame?


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Bristol: The Start of an Independents Revolution?

Martin Stott

As the only city to hold a mayoral referendum last May and vote in favour, Bristol confirmed its reputation as a city that marches to the beat of a different drum. The mayoral election in November reinforced this maverick status with electors decisively (albeit on a turnout of only 27.9%) electing Independent candidate George Ferguson as Mayor.

The idea of elected mayors has been around for over a decade, one imported uncritically from the US and grafted onto the existing system of local government here. Catherine Durose in her blog ‘Elected mayors: the wrong solution to the wrong problem’ argues that seeing elected mayors as the solution to the ‘democratic deficit’ is wrong. It certainly hasn’t fired up voters, with nine out of the ten cities conducting referenda in May rejecting them –  as they did when asked during earlier attempts by New Labour to introduce the concept outside London.

Durose is right in observing that almost all the elected mayors that do exist are already mainstream politicians (ex-MPs or council leaders) and this makes Bristol’s choice more interesting. George Ferguson is a colourful architect and entrepreneur with a track record in making things happen, including the Tobacco Factory in Southville, a multi-use regeneration project that includes café, bistro, apartments and a theatre. Despite his history  a Liberal Democrat – he only resigned from the party in May –  Ferguson stood as an Independent and won decisively, beating the favourite, Labour’s Marvin Rees, by 37,353 (54.4%) to 31,259 (46.6%)  on the second round. He also led by a substantial margin in the first round.

One of the interesting aspects of the result is just how badly the three main parties did, obtaining  between them, just 45% of the vote in the first round. The Bristol Post described Ferguson as making ‘mincemeat of the three major parties’.  While this appears to be true, it is also a reflection of the profound disconnect between party politics and the voter, expressed nationally in the very low turnout for Police and Crime Commissioners on the same day  – as does the election of 12 independent candidates as PCCs.

In Bristol, Labour claimed afterwards that Ferguson won because the Tory and Lib Dem vote collapsed. This is partly true – neither of them even managed 10%, but it begs questions about Labour’s ability to connect with and energise voters too. There was a distinct split across the city in terms of turn out, with relatively high percentages in middle class areas like Henlease (43%), Clifton, Redland, Bishopston, Windmill Hill and Westbury-on-Trym but really poor turn outs in Labour strongholds like Southmead, St George, Filwood and Hartcliffe (11%). The result of the mayoral election may have been important to the Labour Party, but its voters don’t seem to have agreed.

Four days before the vote, Ferguson held an ‘Independents gathering’ in the Tobacco Factory theatre. The audience, numbering well over 100, was surprisingly large for a Monday afternoon event.  With him on the stage were Independent veteran ex-MP Martin Bell, independent candidates from Liverpool and London and Independent PCC candidate for Avon and Somerset Sue Mountstevens. Bell, though very supportive, clearly thought that like the Liverpool and London independents, Ferguson and Mountstevens were going to be another pair of plucky losers. By the end of the week both had won, Mountstevens with the largest PCC mandate in the country, and Ferguson humiliating all the mainstream political parties. We may yet record that ‘the march of the independents’ started out in Bristol.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Who Will Really Commission the Police?

Ian Briggs

By the end of this month, 41 newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales will be facing the challenge of filling their diaries with appointments to help them get to grips with a role that is both new and controversial. Whatever their mandate from the electorate, their role will open up some very interesting possibilities around public involvement in policing.

However, behind this significant change sits a number of questions for policing in England, and near the top of the list is how policing could operate within the possibilities created by taking a strategic commissioning approach to the way that policing operates. Strategic commissioning is of course nothing new, it is an established approach in many parts of the public sector and when it is done well and with care new operational opportunities arise, and in certain cases significant economies and quality improvements can be made.

Ensuring that we, as members of civil society, are adequately protected and that crime is efficiently detected will always be the core role for the police; but the emphasis is shifting in some very important areas. Crime prevention is a core task and there are clear benefits in attaining targets through early intervention with young people and those that are more vulnerable in society. Indeed, here the police have developed some interesting and innovative experience through partnership working and aligning intended outcomes with other public bodies and agencies; but the prevailing performance mindset in policing is one of targets and rational planning and not always one of the application of imagination. Where we can see some powerful examples of the benefits of strategic commissioning in other public services it is often around the imaginative approach to the way that joined up outcomes can be achieved. This often brings with it some uncomfortable choices.  At a simple level if we took away the gritting of the highway in winter and focused our attention onto making the pathways safer and free from snow and ice, then we potentially have fewer elderly members of society having their lives ruined through shattered bones and in so doing save us, the taxpayer a fortune in the expert care they require to enable them to recover. Can the PCC now do more than merely be held to account by the electorate in budget setting and the overemphasised issue of hiring and firing the Chief Constable?

Already advanced thinking is taking place.  In West Midlands Police work is underway to look at how strategic commissioning can open up opportunities to go beyond simple target attainment and seek to demonstrate how effective policing can have a wider impact. For example, a concentration of resources upon an often deprived locality could reduce house break-ins and burglary, which in turn could impact upon a reduction in insurance premiums – and which then could put some marginal but important extra spending power into that community to make other services more sustainable.

Whatever we think about the new PCCs, let’s hope that their diaries will have some reflective thinking time and allow imagination to flourish and break free of the terror of targets that policing and communities have suffered from in the past.

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.