During Michael Howard’s leadership of the Conservatives in opposition, Bill Bratton caught the eye of the party’s policy-makers. The then Los Angeles Police Commissioner was turning round the city’s police department.
Bratton had already done the same in New York, drawing on the “broken windows” theory of good policing, and his example inspired Howard’s team.
The latter made introducing police commissioners Tory policy, and it was duly introduced by the Coalition Government. Commissioners have the power to hold police funds, produce a policing and crime plan, and appoint chief constables – and, in extremis, fire them.
But even our columnist Daniel Hannan, one of the original champions of the scheme, has conceded that the commissioners have “failed to catch the public’s imagination”.
The long and short of it is that a very large slice of them, including Conservative ones, have fallen victim to the policing equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.
“They never recovered from a Channel 4 documentary…in which the then PCC for Kent, Ann Barnes, revealed herself as a real-life David Brent, talking in wince-making management-speak and repeatedly getting her job title wrong,” wrote Hannan.
Rather than face up to their local chief constable, and hold him to account, they have tended to get alongside him instead, and demand yet more money from central government. There’s nothing wrong with doing that; much wrong with doing only – or largely – that.
This morning, we could explore how the police commissioner ideal went askew. Instead, we want to focus on a new one who shows early signs of getting it right.
Lisa Townsend was elected in May as Surrey’s Police Commissioner, and went public yesterday to urge the local force to stop employing Stonewall.
“The single biggest issue that filled-up my inbox when I first announced I was standing as police and crime commissioner were concerns about gender self-identification,” she told the Mail on Sunday.
“They raised concerns about safeguarding, the recording of crime, the placement of trans women in women’s prisons and men identifying as women in changing rooms.”
The new commissioner’s argument is that there is a transgender ideology which endangers women and which Stonewall campaigns for. So Surrey Police should stop employing it.
Townsend says she believes in equality “and was once proud to support Stonewall”, but that it “has drifted so far from its original mission is now a threat to women and risks putting feminism back 50 years”.
Three questions follow from her decision to express these views. (“Everybody has told me not to speak-out about this, that the debate is incendiary, but if women like me can’t or don’t speak up who will?”)
First, should police commissioners go public if they disagree with their local police force? Second, are Townsend’s criticisms of Stonewall justified? Finally: if they are, will setting them out achieve anything?
A commissioner who has not tried to convince her local chief constable and police force of a case privately before making it publicly would either have very poor judgement or be a rampant publicity-monger or both.
We understand that this is not the case here – and if a police commissioner doesn’t seek to apply public pressure when private lobbying hasn’t succeeded, if she thinks it’s necessary for a cause she believes to be important, she is falling down on the job.
It might nonetheless be that Townsend’s particular criticisms of Stonewall are wrong. We believe that she’s right – but whether this is so or not, like our opinion on the matter, is beside the point.
Which is that her view is not obviously unreasonable: as she points out, it’s held by lots of people who voted in Surrey police commissioner elections, whether they supported her or not.
(“The women who contacted me were shocked that someone was finally listening to them. Some were anonymous – genuinely terrified to put their names to emails because the backlash for speaking out can be brutal.”)
Any sensible politician will be responsive to the views of those they represent, unless they strongly disagree with them, and think them reprehensible into the bargain.
It might be that Townsend could do is speak her mind. Were this so, it wouldn’t necessarily be useless. Perhaps the most common complaint about politicians is that “they’re all talk”.
But politics, like other human activities, would be impossible without talk. Indeed, in politics words are deeds – or at least can be, even if they’re seldom a substitute for action.
Politicians can help to make a case, change minds, set moods, start fashions – “make the weather”, as Churchill said of Joe Chamberlain. Townsend is trying to acquaint her local force with public opinion.
And changing views as well as Ministerial opinion help to explain why a long list of councils, as well as police forces, are no longer funding Stonewall. (Those local authorities didn’t include, when Harry Phibbs recently did a write-up for us, Surrey County Council.)
Nonethless, making a case isn’t all Townsend can do. Ultimately, she could sack the Chief Constable, Gavin Stephens. That might be just a bit excessive.
Short of this somewhat extreme solution, she could seek to withhold from the police budget its contribution to the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme, membership of which starts at about £2,500.
That sum is a drop in the ocean of the force’s £262 million budget (set earlier this year before she was elected), and no doubt Surrey Police could simply chop it from elsewhere – claiming that membership is an operational rather than a strategic matter.
But such a tussle would generate yet more publicity and counter-publicity, and mobilise more public opinion – which, if Townsend’s take on it is right, would further her cause.
Doubtless other police commissioners are hiding their fires under bushels. Townsend is not alone in working for those she represents. And the case for reviewing the entire police commissioner experiment is as strong as ever.
However, the one recently elected for Surrey is going about earning her salary, getting stuck in, campaigning for a cause she believes to be important – and risking the inevitable social media backlash.
That deserves the opposite of being called out, whatever that is, and this site is happy to oblige. We don’t know what Townsend is on but, whatever it is, some of her fellow Tory commissioners could do with a bit of it.