Commission This!

The upcoming Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections carry more than a whiff of impending disaster. They nestle, shivering, between the twin impediments of voter apathy and an I-can’t-be-bothered-to-go-out-in-the-cold-and-dark polling schedule. Combine this with an unfathomably muted publicity drive (a smattering of adverts during the X Factor? Really? Unless we’re going to have a PCC clap-o-meter on the iphone you’re wasting your time) and the results look bleak. At best, newly anointed PCCs shouldering teeny tiny mandates will hold little power in real terms. At worst, an absolute stinker of a candidate will be elected by virtue of the fact that those people with a political and social will, with valid viewpoints and progressive ideals, couldn’t muster the energy to care.

There are a lot of things I care, and care deeply, about. Some but not all of these things are related to my gender. Some but not all of these things may be affected by the election of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner. There is certainly scope within the PCC role to address the issues I am most passionate about: the, if you like, holy trinity of my activism. In an ideal world the PCC would become involved in increasing provision for victims of domestic violence and rape; in providing education and awareness sessions on gendered violence to schools and youth clubs and in supporting a prevailing opinion of ALL sex workers as victims of coercion and exploitation. And so, on Wednesday I attended a question time with all seven of the West Midlands candidates. I attended with the hope of clarifying the murky waters of an initiative about which I am, at best, skeptical.

Unfortunately it was not to be.

Instead, I watched seven individuals blunder and sound bite their way through a series of questions, questions it was searingly obvious they knew little about. The event was planned months in advance. The event was planned by Coventry Women’s Voices. The event came attached with a manifesto (on issues affecting women and girls) that the organisers were lobbying candidates to sign up to. There are several clues in there as to the likely content and tone of the evening. You know? WOMEN? Issues affecting WOMEN? Coventry WOMEN’S Voices? Although I doubt event rampant capitalising and size 60 font would have alerted this lot to the necessity to perhaps engage in a little light research before attending.

And so.

There are the usual suspects.

There are several things that are going to happen here tonight.

A man in an ill-fitting suit jacket will try to appease by pledging his attention to ‘crimes that affect ladies’ (this man will also represent UKIP so there really will be nothing else to say). The sole female candidate, our great hope for equal representation, will demolish the prospect of respect by closing her opening gambit with a bizarre cheerleader style chant cum hand gesture (which, come to think of it, is eerily reminiscent of something a doggedly loyal family member of an X Factor contestant may do. Maybe those adverts were onto something). Derek, dear old Derek, will raise the hackles of the audience by refuting the idea that street sex workers are subject to coercion and exploitation, stating that many are there because they want to be, because they are making an economic decision (You won’t remember much else of what Derek has to say, he lost you at ‘choice’). A lithe, lanky Tory will also distract you from the content of his questions by reminding you too much of the character Phil Smith from The Thick of It. The Tory and the Labour candidates will engage in a vitriolic spat, the source of which will remain elusive. Everyone’s opinions will appear based on a few hastily read briefings and the odd Panorama on sex trafficking (apparently British women engaging in street prostitution isn’t fashionable to talk about anymore…).

I am, of course, being glib. Yet my disappointment is sincere. I perhaps naively expected that at least one candidate would have a grasp of the issues that affect so many women and girls every day. The phrase ‘under reporting’ was repeated mantra-like by all of the candidates. Yet this was said with no sense or idea of how to increase reporting, or of how the provision of responses and support far removed from the criminal justice system are vital. Apparently the candidates, if elected, would hold regular meetings with the public. Not really the ideal setting for marginalised and vulnerable groups to make their opinions and needs felt and heard. What of the lack of access to rape and domestic violence services for LGBT victims, for disabled victims, for BME victims or for ‘looked after’ teens? There was a distinct failure to comprehend the reasons that people do not come forward. There was a further failure to suggest how access to justice and support can be increased, and also how to increase the trust in statutory agencies that is so lacking for some members of society.

I appreciate that there was a limited time frame for discussion and that many of the questions asked could not be given an unequivocal answer without research and careful planning. However, if a question time such as this is a glimpse into the hearts and minds of our candidates I can say only this: I may have ventured out on a cold, dark, rainy night to see what these candidates had to say for themselves. I certainly won’t be repeating the gesture on November 15th.