Britons shun polls for new police commissioners

LONDON Sun Nov 18, 2012 11:53pm GMT

A sign for a polling station is seen through a gate in Hambleden, southern England November 15, 2012. Elections are taking place in England and Wales to choose 41 police and crime commissioners (PCCs). REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

A sign for a polling station is seen through a gate in Hambleden, southern England November 15, 2012. Elections are taking place in England and Wales to choose 41 police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

Credit: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

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LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron was accused of presiding over an election shambles on Friday after voters stayed away from a costly national poll to pick commissioners to boost the oversight of local police forces.

Turnout in Thursday's polls to elect the U.S.-style police commissioners for 41 forces across England and Wales looked set to become one of the worst in British electoral history, below the 23 percent low in the 1999 European elections, raising questions over the legitimacy of the successful candidates.

Voter indifference to the initiative, designed to make chief constables more accountable to the public, was compounded by poor media coverage, with the government refusing to subsidise candidate mail shots and leaflets.

The decision to hold the polls in November, when days are short and the weather cold, instead of in May alongside regular local authority elections, was also blamed for voter apathy, with candidates winning on turnouts as low as 12 percent.

At one polling station in south Wales no voters turned up at all, with the average turnout in the elections standing at 14 percent as ballots continued to be counted, the BBC reported.

A Reuters journalist stood outside a polling station for 45 minutes in Harlow, a town east of London, on Thursday and saw only one person voting.

The elections had been a "complete shambles", said Labour, accusing the Conservative-led government of wasting the 75 million pound cost of running the polls.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS), a pro-democracy campaign group, said the elections had been a "comedy of errors".

"No amount of spin can conceal the historical proportions of this failure. Even in wartime governments have managed to get more people to the polls with half the population under arms or overseas," said ERS Chief Executive Katie Ghose.

The plans were already controversial, with critics saying the commissioners would hinder the work of top officers with political meddling and distorting police priorities, and the poor turnout will add fuel to the complaints.

"The level of turnout will inevitably raise questions about their legitimacy," said John Collins, deputy director of the Police Foundation, an independent think tank.

Cameron dismissed the concerns, saying the new commissioners had a mandate despite voter indifference and would bring more accountability to police forces than the unelected police authorities they will supersede.

"Remember these ... commissioners are replacing organisations that weren't directly elected at all and for the first time people are going to have a local law and order champion," he said.

"The turnout was always going to be low, when you're electing a new post for the first time," he added.

In one of the few contests to attract media attention, former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott failed to be elected as police commissioner for Humberside in north east England, coming second behind Conservative rival Matthew Grove.

(Editing by Matt Falloon)

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