Toby Harris, Labour peer and former chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, warned conference delegates in Liverpool on Monday that party grandees are considering not contesting the PCC vote in November 2012. But this morning, Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, was quick to dismiss suggestions of a boycott. She told the BBC:
That’s not what we are proposing but we will have to consider how we respond to the legislation that has just gone through Parliament. We will be thinking about the best way to respond to do that.
The truth, according to Labour officials, is that the party is still grappling with how it should respond to the bill bringing in elected police commissioners, which finally cleared the House of Lords earlier this month after an initial rebellion by Lib Dem peers in May. Labour has opposed the entire policy on the basis that introducing PCCs will cost around £112m – equivalent to more than 2,000 police constables – at a time when police budgets are being slashed by 20 per cent.
An additional concern for Labour is that under the amended bill, PCCs will be elected in a discrete poll in November, once the Olympics are over, rather than being wrapped into the existing council elections in May. Not only does this add to the total price tag (separate elections make up £25m of the £112m total), but it also risks an extremely low turnout. One Labour figure told me gloomily that he expected a turnout of “15 to 30 per cent, tops”.
While Nick Herbert, policing minister, is said not to be worried about this prospect, Labour apparently is.
One option, if Labour wants to distance itself from the process, is to allow a local candidate or former chief constable to stand with the loose backing of the party, rather than putting forward a party member who may be less well-versed in policing matters.
However, as the Guardian reports, Lord Harris warned explicitly of the dangers of doing this. He told an Association of Police Authorities fringe meeting:
These are enormously political posts. The danger of somebody being elected who has not been tested by going through a party political selection process is incredibly serious.
And as one senior Labour figure pointed out to me recently, which local Labour party is going to go out fundraising for a candidate who is not even a party member?
Clearly, Labour’s National Executive Committee will have some serious questions to grapple with once the conference is over.
UPDATE: Vernon Coaker, Labour’s shadow policing minister, is now saying that Labour is “likely” to field PCC candidates although no final decision has been made.