The word of the year - omnishambles - has already been overused to the point of becoming wearisome. But if ever there were a situation for which it was fitted, it was the new elections for Police & Crime Commissioners in England and Wales on Thursday. Many voters were furious about them - nearly 3,000 in Cambridgeshire alone taking the time to spoil their ballot papers, sometimes in great detail, to tell us so. It's a pity that it's an offence to reveal the comments people made, as they were biting, pithy, sometimes graphical, and worthy of a wider audience.
The proposal for elected Police & Crime Commissioners featured in the Conservative Party manifesto in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. At best, it was nothing more than a Tory tribute act to the Blairite cult of the powerful individual. At worst, it was a crude attempt to politicise policing and pour money from the hugely inflated salaries of those elected into the pockets of their political parties. There was to be no trial run, no pilot scheme, no opportunity for electors to say whether they wanted these highly-paid people given sole power over a major part of the life of their community.
As if all this were not bad enough, it was decided to hold the elections in November. Not only is this not a month in which people are particularly keen to traipse to the polling booth in the dark on their way to or from work. But it's also the time of year when the electoral register is updated, causing massive difficulties for candidates and their volunteers trying to get usable current data in time to inform their campaigning. I understand - and share, really I do - the concern about wanting to make sure elections are distinct (I don't think it's right to hold council elections on the same day as parliamentary elections, for example). But November?
And then to cap it all, the decision was made that it would be too expensive to ensure that voters were actually informed about the candidates and their policies. No candidate would be allowed the facility to distribute literature through the Royal Mail, nor would there be a centrally-produced booklet about all the candidates in any particular area. Instead, there would just be a poorly advertised website; and a telephone number for people to ring if they wanted information. Otherwise, wealthy candidates were able to produce literature if they could rustle up volunteers to deliver it; and candidates of average means had to do without. Many voters were really, really angry about how little information they'd received about the candidates. And frankly, I can understand that.
The Electoral Commission produced a pamphlet about the election. That was delivered by Royal Mail, as I understand it. Mine was wrapped in a stack of other unsolicited bulk mail (otherwise known as 'junk mail') from garden centres, DIY stores, pizza parlours, boiler companies and all the other unwanted paper that pours through our letter boxes daily. I could easily have missed it - and I'm not surprised many other voters did.
It's therefore hardly unexpected that turnout was low, spoiled ballot papers were numerous, and the choice of individuals making life-altering decisions about crime and safety in our community has been made by a tiny proportion of the adult population on the basis of little or no information. It's not surprising, but it's nonetheless scandalous. Here in Cambridgeshire, the new Commissioner received the votes of only one in twenty of the voting public - and he wasn't even the first choice of a quarter of those (let alone of his own party).
Will anything change as a result? Unlikely. It's another nail in the coffin of democratic politics in this country.
There was only one piece of good news on Thursday: the decision of the voters of Hartlepool to get rid of the position of elected mayor. On a day when the whole of England and Wales was forced to accept the Blairite cult of the powerful individual, one small town in the north decided it had had enough of it. Let's hope the movement spreads.
- ► 2011 (34)