Tomorrow (today, depending on exactly when you're reading this), I want you to go out, find your local polling station for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and spoil your ballot.
Police and crime WHAT?
Quite. Apparently only just under two thirds of us are even aware these elections are happening. The vast majority of us have not heard a single squeak from the so-called candidates.
To recap for the remaining one third, 41 elected "Police and Crime Commissioners" will replace the existing Police Authorities in England (except for London where you have the fortune of already having Boris as your de facto PCC) and Wales, all in the name of making the police more accountable. The new PCCs will be paid between £65,000 and £100,000 annually to produce a "Police and Crime Plan" for their policing area, set priorities on how police funding is spent, produce an annual report, and have the power to appoint, suspend and dismiss Chief Constables. As job descriptions go, my interns have more demanding ones for considerably less money.
Okay, but WHY?
Good question. Something to do with "accountability". And probably "bobbies on the beat". Everyone likes bobbies on the beat, right? Quite possibly also to facilitate the privatisation of large chunks of the police to companies like G4S; or to party-politicise the police - because that works so well!
Now, don't get me wrong. Policing in this country needs urgent and extensive reform. Ask the families of the Hillsborough victims. Ask the families of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes and the 1431 other people who have died in police custody or after contact with the police since 1990. Ask anyone who's been charged at by the Met's finest on horseback. Ask the rape victims whose investigations were botched and deliberately obstructed by the police. And ask Steve Messham.
But let's be clear: Electing John Prescott and the like to produce some glorified pieces of toilet paper is not going to achieve the kind of reform we so badly need. And let's be clear on something else too: Theresa May does not want you to vote in these elections.
Theresa May doesn't want me to vote?
The Electoral Reform Society estimates that due to a number of factors - all within Mrs May's control - turnout at these elections is likely to be a record low, somewhere around the 20% mark. Theresa May continues to cheerfully insist that that doesn't matter and whoever is elected will have a democratic mandate.
If Theresa May wanted to you vote, here are a few things she could have done:
- Scheduled the elections to coincide with other, more established elections, e.g. local ones, and not in winter.
- Had information about the elections and the candidates mailed out to you.
- Provided information not just online (excluding 7 million registered voters who do not regularly access the internet), and provided information in accessible formats for the disabled.
- Encouraged independent candidates, rather than shafting them by excluding anyone with any kind of previous conviction, demanding a £5,000 deposit and denying them a free mailshot to voters.
She has done none of these things. Theresa May definitely does not want you to vote.
I don't want to do what Theresa May wants me to, but these elections are pointless and counterproductive. What do I do?
Whatever you do, don't do nothing! It plays into the hands of the government. It plays into the hands of extremists candidates. It encourages politicians to keep disregarding you.
You can, if you want to, vote. If you live in a policing area where there are extremist candidates and you feel they are likely to win, then by all means do vote for the lesser evil.
If you want to be annoying and obstructive (and I don't blame you if you do), you can pocket the ballot paper. It causes all sorts of havoc if a ballot paper has been issued but doesn't end up in the ballot box. This does carry some risk and I'm told you may get chased down the street by the returning officer. For a slightly safer though lesser level of havoc, you can write "CANCELLED" on your ballot paper and put it in the ballot box.
My preferred option is spoiling your ballot. This makes it clear that you care, and you have bothered to turn up, but also that you do not feel that these elections are legitimate or that any of the candidates deserve your support. Imagine the signal we would send if the election was "won" by spoilt ballots. The other good reason to do this has to do with the candidates' deposits. As I mentioned above, the deposit is £5,000, and candidates only get it back if they receive at least 5% of the votes cast. Again, imagine the message we would send if even the successful candidate lost their deposit because they were elected on less than 5% of the votes cast, at a turnout of 20%!
How to spoil a ballot
A final thought on the finer points of spoiling your ballot. From my experience as a counting agent at the AV referendum, the Electoral Commission produces guidelines to ensure that as many ballots are counted as valid whilst being interpreted correctly as humanly possible. (Note: Returning officers do not always read these guidelines. Counting agents generally will, and will fight for every ballot they can possibly imagine going their way.) Combine this with this being the first use of the supplementary vote system outside of London Mayoral elections, and I think you really can't afford to be subtle about spoiling your ballot. Don't play around with writing numbers in the boxes, ranking your candidates, putting in ticks instead of crosses, etc. Write something on your ballot that makes it very clear that your intention is to spoil it. One suggestion is "No to police commissioners, yes to democracy". "This is a spoilt ballot" will do just as well. Just don't give people any chance of counting your ballot as valid unless you want them to.