At 6pm on Thursday 21 August 2014, I walked to my local polling station, a small primary school, to vote in the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) by-election. When I entered the school’s hall the two poll clerks looked at me in surprise: one put down their book; the other told me I was the first person to cast their ballot there that day.
This was typical of the election’s low turnout: 10.41 per cent across the West Midlands Conurbation, which has a population of just under 2m. I heard of at least one polling station in Birmingham that received zero visitors all day. However, of those who voted, over half chose to elect Labour’s David Jamieson, who was re-elected in a landslide victory on 5 May 2016.
The 2014 by-election was called shortly after the sudden death of Bob Jones. Once David became the Labour candidate, he pledged to improve road safety by reactivating speed cameras; he promised to increase neighbourhood policing by hiring more police officers. David was previously the MP for Plymouth Devonport for 13 years, then a councillor in Solihull for four. He’s affable on the phone, despite us speaking the evening after the funeral of his friend, Darren Cooper, the former leader of Sandwell Council.
He tells me every PCC’s main responsibilities are threefold: to write a strategic plan for police priorities in the area; to hold the chief constable to account; to engage with the public: translating what they want from the police into the force itself.
Listening to and being accountable to voters are the aspects most similar to being an MP or councillor, as well as needing to utilise all media to keep the public aware of what you’re doing. One significant difference is the West Midlands PCCs being solely responsible for a budget of £540m. Even as a junior minister, David explains, you have very little say in how budgets are spent, but this role requires him to oversee large amounts with relatively few barriers. For this, the West Midlands PCC is paid £100,000 a year, compared to the £74,000 basic salary of an MP.
The PCC role itself is often seen as vague, leading some to mould the job to suit their ideologies. Like any other PCC, David is responsible for dismissing and hiring chief constables, but he also wants the public to judge how well he holds the police to account. To achieve this, he created a cross-party board, which acts like a select committee and cross-examines the chief constable’s reports every month; this is streamed publically via live webcast. As far as David is aware, no other PCC has done this.
It’s also his intention to integrate the work of the police with other aspects of West Midlands politics, like the economic agenda; “High levels of employment and aspiration,” David says, “draw people, particularly young men, away from crime”. He believes in creating a healthy economic environment, which will manifest itself in a healthier social environment.
Looking at the other PCCs, David says, “None have done wildly stupid things”, but concedes, “one or two have made a mess”. The biggest challenge for any of them, he states, is overcoming the huge size of their constituencies and maintaining contact with their electors. This is made harder by the shifting dynamics of such large areas and the variety of communities one person has to represent.
In terms of fighting crime, David believes organised crime and radicalisation are major problems for any PCC, but he says the biggest issue facing us all is that of cyber crime, which requires greater international cooperative, as the criminals are often abroad. As a result of this, he supported remaining in the European Union. He gives the example of a West Midlands chief and a Spanish counterpart leading Europe in tackling gun crime. A vote to leave means that the level of cooperation we currently have, such as European arrest warrants could be lost, and trying to combat these criminals would be, “endlessly more difficult”.
As part of further devolution to city regions, in 2017 there will be an election for a West Midlands metro mayor, who will cover Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry, and several smaller towns on the outskirts of these cities. There are reports that the metro mayor will absorb the PCC’s role. This would mean that in 2017, some of these cities would have voted four times in five years for the political head of the second largest police force in the country.
However, David says whoever does get elected is more likely to launch a joint bid with the him, transforming the PCC role into that of a deputy mayor, who would retain power over police and perhaps even incorporate the fire service. This will only happen, David stresses, if we elect a strong mayor who can deliver a plan the central government can trust, and even then it won’t be discussed until 2018.
I ask him if he honestly believes anyone other than Labour could win the metro mayor election and he says, tactfully, that anyone who gets complacent about their election tends to lose their seat. He’s applied this thinking to all of his elections; even those to his old safe seat in Plymouth, where he had a 19,000 majority, but says he always fought it like a marginal.
Before interviewing him, I met David on the campaign trail, where he joined with my local Labour candidate for Birmingham City Council in speaking with voters. His brother, a former Labour councillor, ran against Labour in the ward, as the Green Party candidate. “Labour was too successful,” David laughs, “he fights elections to lose”.
Our time is running out, so I ask him about his beginnings in politics. In 1963, at the end of a long period of Tory government, David, aged 16, saw the state of housing in the West Midlands was still suffering after the war, with widespread slums. There were many children around whose parents worked, but didn’t have shoes as they walked to school. David thought there had to be something better. At the same time, a cousin was the first child born in the family after the NHS, which meant that baby was the first in the family not to impoverish them due to doctor, hospital and midwife fees.
Fifty three years later, David says, “We’ve got to refresh ourselves, and start talking about the things the public are talking about again”. He feels the last Labour government did great things in health and education, but didn’t get it right on housing, something that needs to be addressed now. “We started talking in a way that politicians talk with each other, but not in a way most people speak”, which created distance with the public; he criticises himself for this too.
Ultimately, he feels, “We need to find better ways of getting the message out there”. He lives in Solihull, a wealthy suburb of Birmingham where the Tories have a large majority. However, Labour Party membership there has more than tripled. This gives him hope Labour can do better: that the party can speak with more of electorate than it did in 2015. Achieving that will require all factions of the parliamentary Labour Party to put their differences aside – and work together with the membership.
This article is part of our Midlands Engine series. Click here for more.
It's an edited version of an article that appeared on our sister site New Statesman in May.