BIRMINGHAM, England – It’s a strong candidate for Britain’s worst ever election. No one – voters, returning officers, even some of the candidates – wanted the by-election held on Thursday for the position of West Midlands police and crime commissioner.
But someone needed to fill the job, created as part of a flagship coalition policing policy, after the position’s previous occupant, Bob Jones, died suddenly at the end of June, so £3.7 million was spent holding an election to find a replacement. As predicted, almost no one turned up: Just over 10.4% of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballot.
Visiting polling stations with Labour candidate and eventual winner David Jamieson, it became immediately clear that even those vying for the £100,000-a-year role didn’t have high hopes. By mid-afternoon at one polling station 83 people out of a possible 1900 had voted. Jamieson looked over to his adviser and said cheerily: “That’s almost 5%, that’s not bad!”
Later, the former MP greeted a group of four young voters just outside a polling station and asked if they would vote.
“No, you’re all crooks. You all say one thing and do another,” one retorted. The Labour candidate suggested he would be different. “Look, none of you do what you say,” responded one of the potential voters.
When BuzzFeed asked the group to explain their views on camera the response was instant.
“Get that fucking camera out of my face,” one said, at which point the video was immediately deleted. “If you try and record us again, I’ll smash in your fucking glasses,” another added, kicking out at this reporter.
They did not vote.
As Jamieson walked back towards his car to pick up leaflets, a woman started walking out of her house with what appeared to be a large cannabis joint in her mouth. He asked the woman if she would vote and she did little to cover up the spliff, instead fobbing him off by saying she hadn’t decided if she would vote yet.
The Labour candidate turned around, gesturing, “Did you see the size of that thing?”
The last time this election was held, the the Electoral Commission said the turnout of 12% “must be a concern for anyone who cares about democracy”. On Thursday it was even lower.
Police and crime commissioners, introduced with the backing of the Conservatives and Lib Dems, were designed to reconnect the British public with the police. Each elected commissioner has the power to sack the heads of local police forces and intervene in other ways. Let people elect this position, the thinking goes, and democratic forces will keep the police in line.
Unfortunately it seems no one cares, especially on a Thursday before a bank holiday in August.
Many voters appeared not to know there even was an election. In the centre of Birmingham, an area crowded with shoppers and workers from around the region, there wasn’t a single notice about the elections, or even signs to a polling station. When asked about whether he would vote, a man in his early thirties thought about lying for a second before saying, bluntly: “No.”
Gemma Bowron, 31, spent her lunchtime reading a book with the polling station in her sight, but didn’t vote because she had no idea there was an election, despite the government spending an extra £1 million on leaflets in an attempt to drum up interest.
“No one’s mentioned it at work,” she said. “I didn’t even get a leaflet about it in the post. Normally you get posters around your area too, and there hasn’t been any of that.”
Sam, a 20 year-old student, wasn’t aware of the elections either. Less than 10 metres from the entrance to the polling station, he said: “I didn’t realise it was on. What’s it about?”
Inside, an election officer said that leaflets had been sent to everyone in the city, adding that turnout was expected to be low due to the time of year. When pressed on the fact no one was voting, she said: “We’ll probably get more postal votes than actual people coming in.”
The by-election was taking place only months after two former Labour home secretaries suggested the government scrap the idea of PCCs. In February, Alan Johnson and Charles Clarke wrote in the Guardian that local authorities should replace police and crime commissioners in order to remove any influence of politics in the country’s policing. Labour is now considering making this official party policy.
Jamieson, the party’s candidate and eventual victor in the election, ignored the question of his role not having the support of the party, instead arguing that as the position of PCC exists, he would look to carry out the position.
Before leaving Birmingham, I tried to convince an individual to vote. “The polling station is right there,” I said, pointing to the entrance and suggesting he could go and vote now.
“Hm, ah, I don’t think I’d have that much of an impact anyway,” he replied.