The debate within the Liberal Democrats on whether we should stand candidates for the Police and Crime Commissioners has been an interesting one. Not just because the principle of standing candidates is not something that usually provokes debate (although obviously some areas struggle to find enough council candidates) but because the two sides of the argument are not easy to characterise. There are people I would have thought were a dead cert in believing we should stand who are firmly against, and vice versa. This topic has been debated informally internally for several weeks, but tonight it will be discussed by the party’s Federal Executive and so I decided it was time to put in my two penn’uth worth on why I believe we have to stand.
A DISTINCTIVE STANCE ON CRIME
For years the Liberal Democrats have been arguing a completely different approach to law and order from the other two major parties. We’ve long campaigned for restorative justice (and been the people who’ve proved to the doubters that it can work in many of the councils we’ve run). We’ve talked for years about how prison doesn’t work and is a very expensive and inefficient way of not really dealing with the problem of crime. Whilst the Police and Crime Commissioners won’t have the powers to make some of the changes we would like to see in the criminal justice system these elections will see a much broader discussion on crime than just the things it can influence. If we don’t stand candidates, who will argue that point of view? Yes, Ken Clarke may be supporting many of the initiatives that we have long argued for, but do we really believe that the Conservatives who have long backed sending more and more people to prison and Labour who have an illiberal record of cutting civil liberties when in office, are going to create a wide debate on where policing goes in this country? We need to stand to give people the opportunity to vote for the things that we believe in. No one else will do that. And if we don’t stand we’re saying that we have no opinion on this crucial debate.
IF WE DON’T STAND FOR ELECTION, THEN WHAT’S THE POINT IN US EXISTING?
Political parties are a likeminded group of people who stand for election to change the world. OK, that’s a simplification, but Article One of the Liberal Democrat constitution says:
the objectives of the party shall be… to secure the election of Liberal Democrats as Members of Parliament, UK Members of the European Parliament and members of local and other elected public authorities.
Apart from the slightly nerdy constitutional point that the party would be breaching its own constitution by not standing for this ‘elected public authority’, it shows that standing for election is a fundamental part of what we do. If we don’t stand for election we’re just a pressure group and not a political party. We might not agree with Police and Crime Commissioners, but then we also don’t agree with directly-elected mayors yet we still stand. Similarly, we stand under First Past The Post elections whilst supporting proportional representation. The political structures may not be the ones we want, but they’re the ones that exist and if we don’t stand for election we can’t change them or make what they do as Liberal Democrat as possible.
DAMAGE TO THE PARTY’S IMAGE
Now I’m sure our opponents would say that our image has already been damaged since we went in to government, but would our image be improved any further by us not standing? At the General Election we stood candidates everywhere because it gave us credibility as a national party, and so we can hardly argue the opposite now. You only had to look at the press obsession with us having fewer council candidates in May (despite the fact that it was only marginally lower and in places where we’d always struggled) to see how obessesed they will get if we don’t stand. The press line will be that we clearly are struggling, because we can’t even find candidates. Instead, by standing everywhere and winning some of the contests it will, in the way that by-elections often have done, show that are still a thriving party. Our opinion poll ratings have improved from “being disastrous, to just very worrying,” (as someone recently described it), and we are finally performing well in council by-elections and gaining our first seat from Labour. This feeling of improvement and growing credibility will be destroyed if we fail to stand candidates, whether that is a blanket failure to stand or picking and choosing.
NOT STANDING WILL HINDER OUR LONG-TERM CAMPAIGNING
One of the mantras of the party’s campaigning over the years has not only been to always stand a candidate, but that doing so helps people get in to the habit of voting Liberal Democrat and it helps develop local campaigning over time. However, if in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections our supporters have to go off and find someone else to vote for, it breaks that habit and makes it harder for us to win those people back in the future. Many of us who were fighting hard at the General Election to help the party win key parliamentary target seats know how difficult it can be to persuade people to break their loyalty to a party they’ve always supported. This weekend I was helping do some party training in Bradford, and one of the things we talked about was how getting people to vote for you involves both breaking their allegiance to another party and then persuading them that you’re the party they should now switch to. If we don’t stand candidates we’ve already done the first half of that job for our opponents.
BACKING INDEPENDENTS IS NEVER THE SOLUTION
A third option for the party is to back independent candidates in certain areas, but my fear with this is who makes that decision. Do we run an all-member ballot or is that decision just left to the Liberal Democrat great and the good of that police authority area? I’ve written before about why I don’t believe Liberal Democrats should ever endorse Independent candidates. But on Police and Crime Commissioners I don’t see how we can ever be entirely sure that someone is genuinely a Liberal Democrat in their views without going through the party approval and selection process, which of course would mean that they were then not really independent. If there was to be no Liberal Democrat in my area I would still vote, as I believe you always should, but I wouldn’t necessarily back the party’s preferred candidate. And whilst I may do the research to decide which one is the more Lib Dem candidate in their views, would most of our voters really do that and can I be entirely confident in that research?
The view of party members on whether we should stand in Police and Crime Commissioner elections was made very clear in a recent poll by Liberal Democrat Voice where 57% of members were in favour. This view of the grassroots is also endorsed by ALDC whose Management Committee recently voted unanimously that we should stand candidates. But at the same time many of ‘the powers that be’ in the party are known to be against and the English party’s executive has expressed its desire to not stand candidates (despite already starting the selection process). The decision who stands will finally come down to local areas, but the views of the party’s committees are essential in making sure they endorse the process and that the candidates we have are ‘official’ and backed by the party’s upper echelons. I hope that tonight, the Federal Executive will do the right thing and back the decision to run candidates everywhere.
Although I work for ALDC this post is written in a personal capacity.