GUARDING THE GUARDIANS
As 2008 ended, there had been a warrant-less police raid on an MP’s
office in the Palace of Westminster, and Labour had announced its intention to
press ahead with its idiotic proposal for directly-elected crime and policing
Not long before that, Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair had fallen
on his sword, the victim not just of his real or imagined shortcomings but of
chaotic arrangements for political oversight.
The commissioner is appointed by the home secretary but responsible to a body
chaired by the mayor of London.
This ludicrous arrangement of overlapping mandates is set to be replicated if
directly elected crime and police representatives start to dispute with local
authorities over who has the superior mandate in the innumerable areas in which
Labour’s policy is a variant of the Conservatives’ idea of directly elected
These elections would probably be contested by the same sorts of exhibitionists
and celebrities who are attracted to elected mayoralties.
While their efforts to prove who was the toughest on crime might produce the
entertaining spectacle of an election fought between the ‘Wire Their Genitals To
The Mains’ party and the ‘Flog Them It’s The Only Language They Understand’
party, the consequences for effective policy would be dire.
Since the Liberal Democrats cannot nowadays see a consensus emerge between the
other two parties without leaping to join it – while at the same time devising
policies of incomprehensible complexity – direct election is now also party
In true modern Lib Dem style, this involves councils becoming police authorities
where their boundaries chance to coincide and “Where police forces straddle more
than one council, two-thirds of the members of police authorities should be
directly elected once every four years by the single transferable vote, and
one-third of the members should be nominated by councils that are crime and
disorder reduction partnerships in the force area”.
Everyone clear about that? As with party proposals on tax and the accountability
of health services – and, if certain people have their way, on tuition fees next
March – the Lib Dems lumbered themselves with a policy that is wrong,
incomprehensible except to specialists, indistinct from the other parties and
likely to be neutral in its electoral impact since voters will be unaware of it.
These stances are symptomatic of two wider malaises. The first is a wish to
offend no-one because ‘we can win everywhere’. We can’t. The idea that such a
thing is possible for any party in such a diverse country as the UK is
self-evidently ludicrous, but this thinking has for years inhibited any
political boldness and definition in the party, with the exception of its stance
on the Iraq war.
The second is a misunderstanding of the role the party should play. The Liberal
Democrats, like their predecessor parties, were long derided as a protest party.
As the party has grown at local and parliamentary levels, there has been an
understandable desire to be seen as a ‘party of government’.
But in its haste, the party has tried to omit the intervening stage of being a
party of opposition.
Instead of campaigning for distinct policies that will win the support of those
most likely to share its core values, the party acts as though it were already
in power, forced to make ‘tough choices’ (which it is not), to have mastered the
detailed intricacies (which it is not either) and obliged to act within
government spending plans (which it could do, but need not).
Both Labour and the Tories have embarked on courses that will make them
unpopular by being seen to wish to politicise the police overtly. And the
Liberal Democrats? Well they want to do the same, in some places but not others,
and only two-thirds of the authority, and probably only on Tuesdays when there
is a ‘q’ in the month.
There is indeed a democratic deficit in the present police authorities, and
letting councils, or groups of them, replace those authorities would seem not
merely a sensible and democratic solution but would be the one the party
defended when the police were removed from top-tier councils’ oversight in the
The Damian Green affair showed just how far Labour has gone in turning Britain
into a police state – when the police can raid the Palace of Westminster without
troubling even to get a warrant. Taken with ID cards, the government’s last
ditch defence of the DNA database until overruled by the European Court of Human
Rights and its ‘snooping’ legislation, it was another sign of what a menace to
liberty another term of Labour government would be.
Amid all this, the infuriating thing is that the Lib Dems got the reaction to
the Green affair right in defending MPs’ independence, even if they happen to be
The party does have the right instincts and it can take moral stances based on
those. It is just that, most of the time, it refuses to do this because it is
too mesmerised by polls, by doomed attempts to satisfy conflicting interests and
by a wonkish obsession with policy detail.
Click here to return to the home page.