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Commentary 330 – December 2008
14 February 2009 (14:48:08)

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 representatives.

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 they overlap.

Labour’s policy is a variant of the Conservatives’ idea of directly elected ‘sheriffs’.

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 policy.

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 mid-1990s.

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 Tories.

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.

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