Improvements in turnout and more partisan voting: The consequences of embedding PCC elections in the electoral cycle

The first Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2012 are infamous for their abysmally low turnout and the second batch last week thankfully saw some improvement. In this post, Andrew Defty looks at the variation in turnout across the 40 PCC elections to consider the impact of embedding the elections in the electoral cycle, and how this may have resulted in a decline of independent PCCs.

West Midlands PCC election count 2012 Birmingham News Room

West Midlands PCC election count 2012. Credit: Birmingham News Room CC BY 2.0

Remarkably low turnout was perhaps the defining feature of the first Police and Crime Commissioner elections in November 2012. At 15.1% this was the lowest turnout for a national election in the UK, with only around 5 million people turning out to vote. This meant that most Commissioners were elected by less than 7% of eligible voters, which naturally prompted questions about the legitimacy of what is a powerful office.

There are various explanations for the disappointing turnout in the 2012 PCC elections. Research by the Electoral Commission revealed a significant lack of awareness both of the role of PCCs and of the election itself. Just over a quarter of people reported that they had enough information to make an informed decision about how to vote, while around three quarters reported knowing little or nothing at all about the elections. The timing of the elections also did not help. Rather than waiting to combine them with the next round of local council elections, and despite the fact that the government had committed to holding subsequent PCC elections alongside other elections, the 2012 PCC elections were held as stand-alone elections in November, outside the normal electoral cycle. Responding to the disappointing turnout, the Government argued that this was understandable given the public’s lack of familiarity with the office and that, as PCCs began to establish a local presence, people would come to recognise their importance and turnout would improve next time around.

There was a significant increase in turnout in PCC elections this time. Overall turnout across the 40 PCC elections held in England and Wales was 26.4%, an increase of 11.3% on 2012. Although this represents a considerable improvement, it is still a very low turnout for a national election in the UK, 40 points below turnout in last year’s general election and lower even than the 35% of UK voters in the 2014 European Parliament elections, another institution about which a large proportion of the British public know or care little.

There was, however, considerable variation in turnout across the 40 PCC elections that took place last Thursday. Moreover, any variation may have more to do with the combination of the PCC poll with other elections than with any discernible increase in public enthusiasm for the office. The highest and most dramatic increases in turnout were in Wales where the PCC elections were combined with elections to the Welsh Assembly. Average turnout across the four PCC areas in Wales was 43.1%, only slightly below the 45.3% who voted in the Welsh Assembly elections. The four PCC areas in Wales provided the largest turnout in this year’s PCC elections with Dyfed-Powys topping the list on 49.1%, a huge increase of 32 points from 2012. South Wales, where one polling station infamously received no voters at all in 2012, came second with a turnout of 42.5%. However, while turnout in Welsh PCC elections has risen significantly since 2012, the persistently low turnout for Welsh Assembly elections may create a natural ceiling for PCC elections in Wales.

The picture in England was somewhat less reassuring. The average turnout in PCC elections in England was 24.5%, almost 20 points below the same elections in Wales. Assessing the impact of the link with local elections in England is complicated by the fact that the 36 large PCC areas overlap with several local council districts only some of which held elections this year. Nevertheless, there is some evidence of the effect of the linkage between PCC and local elections. The largest PCC turnout in England was in West Yorkshire (33.2%), where local elections were held in all five district councils in the PCC area. In two other PCC areas, Merseyside and the West Midlands, local elections were held across the PCC area and turnout in both cases was relatively high. High turnouts were also evident in other areas where local elections were held in most, but not all, council districts within the PCC area. These included South Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cambridgeshire and Northumbria. In contrast the lowest PCC election turnout (17.4%) was in Durham, where there were no other elections taking place. This was also the case in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Bedfordshire, all of which produced low turnouts. In the three areas where local elections were held across the entire PCC area average turnout was just over 10% higher than in the four PCC areas in which no local elections were held. Although all the data is not yet available, similar disparities can also be seen in voting within PCC areas. In Lincolnshire, for example, turnout in the PCC election was 10% higher in the City of Lincoln, the only district in which local elections took place alongside PCC elections, than in the rest of the county where the PCC election was the only election taking place.

While running PCC elections alongside other elections seems to have had some impact on turnout, another, arguably less welcome, consequence of this may be an increase in partisan voting in PCC elections. Although the 2012 PCC elections were dominated by political parties with the Conservatives winning 16 of the 41 contests and Labour winning 13, the remaining 12 were won by independent candidates. One noticeable feature of the 2016 PCC elections was the marked decline in the number of independent candidates elected, from 11 to 3. Most of these were defeated by Conservatives although independents were also defeated by Plaid Cymru in North Wales and Labour in Gwent.

This clearly suggests an increase in partisan voting in PCC elections, but whether this is the result of running PCC elections alongside local elections is not clear. The defeat of independent PCCs by Plaid Cymru in North Wales and Labour in Gwent, alongside Plaid’s defeat of the Conservative PCC in Dyfed-Powys, does suggest that voting in the PCC elections in Wales has aligned with voting in the Welsh Assembly elections, particularly on a turnout which closely mirrors that for the Assembly elections. Similarly, in England, several independent PCCs were defeated in areas with large increases in turnout in which a large number of seats were also being contested in several local councils. This was particularly the case in Hampshire and Surrey. At the same time two independent PCCs did hang on in similar circumstances, most notably in Gloucestershire. Moreover, in several of the areas in which independent PCCs were defeated there were very few local elections this year, most notably Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Warwickshire.

It is also the case that the outcome of PCC elections did not always reflect local elections in the same area. In Lincolnshire, for example, while Labour held onto Lincoln City council, the independent Lincolnshire PCC was defeated by a Conservative while in Norfolk the Conservatives replaced another independent PCC but failed to take seats in the two local elections in the area, in Norwich and Great Yarmouth. This is, of course, partly because the electorate in PCC and local elections is different, and in the case of PCC elections it is much larger. In both Norfolk and Lincolnshire while voting in the PCC election was more partisan than in 2012, the results more closely reflected those of the much wider county council elections in 2013, than this year’s local elections.

The positive impact on turnout of linking elections has been known for some time and embedding the PCC elections in the normal electoral cycle alongside local elections undoubtedly had an impact on turnout this time around. This is most evident in Wales where all voters had the opportunity to vote in two elections. However, the impact on turnout in England was much more modest. Although turnout across all 40 PCC areas was up on 2012, in more than half of this year’s elections the increase in turnout was in single figures and the average increase in England was less than 10%. While a modest increase in turnout may be attributed to linking the PCC elections to other elections, because of the complex nature of British local election cycle the impact of this was not even across all PCC areas. Moreover, disparities in voting across and even within PCC areas also has the potential to impact on electoral outcomes. There may be unintended consequences of aligning PCC elections with other elections in terms of making the choice of Police and Crime Commissioner more partisan. While the political parties are unlikely to be concerned about this, it does perhaps raise questions about whether the principal qualification for the role should be one’s political affiliation. The persistently low turnout in PCC elections means that the long-term future of the role remains uncertain, but the influx of independent Police and Crime Commissioners seen in 2012 seems likely to be a thing of the past.

View a PDF of 2016 PCC elections data.

Note: This post represents the views of the author only, and not those of Democratic Audit UK, the LSE Public Policy Group, or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Dr Andrew Defty is Reader at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. He runs the Watching the Watchers blog at Lincoln University. His book, written with Hugh Bochel and Jane Kirkpatrick, on parliament and the intelligence services is also entitled “Watching the Watchers”.

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