Police commissioners or citizen militias

Jim Moody of Labour Party Marxists contrasts state policing with extreme democracy

In November, electors get to choose a police and crime commissioner (PCC) for each of 41 policing areas in England and Wales, though not for the Metropolitan Police (in this area, police and crime commissioner powers were transferred to the mayor of London in January). While there was previously opposition to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s whole plan of replacing police committees with individual PCCs, including from within the Labour Party, there are nonetheless to be Labour candidates in all these elections. As members of the party might be aware, those hoping to bear the Labour banner were busy trying to whip up support during internal elections earlier this month.

It was simplicity itself if you fancied yourself as one of the great and the good heading a police force. Would-be Labour candidates had merely to apply as individuals by the end of February (no party organisations were asked to nominate as part of the selection process), following which a national executive committee-appointed panel long-listed them. In many areas only a handful of members self-selected anyway. Following interviews by panels comprising NEC representatives and individuals hand-picked from regional party organisations, short-lists were voted on by all members. Most short-lists consisted of only two candidates. There has been no democratic debate in the Labour Party about the criteria for candidates for commissioner posts or what is to be achieved by putting forward candidates - in other words, no coherent programme upon which they must stand. Without evidence to the contrary, the inescapable conclusion has to be that all Labour’s PCC candidates stand on an iron cage default position that is solidly of the Labour leadership’s making.

Given the complete lack of branch, constituency or affiliate involvement, it was unsurprising that any hint of a working class approach toward policing was absent from Labour hopefuls’ supporting statements. None of them present any kind of challenge to what police forces always have been and will still be after the PCCs are in place: a cohort of paid servants of the state, helping to secure capitalist rule. Indeed, to admit that the police force is a class weapon is anathema to Labour’s would-be commissioners and their leadership puppeteers.

Of course, the leadership wants no truck with anything that gets in the way of fostering illusions in the state. Many rightwing Labour ‘ideologues’, such as they are, take inspiration from such dire rags as the Blairite Progress think-tank produces, thanks to funding from Lord Sainsbury. (Hilariously, Progress members openly wept when their boy wonder, David Miliband, was pipped at the post in the 2010 Labour leader elections by the Brownite rightwinger, his brother Ed, thanks to trade union bureaucrat support.) Labour’s left is almost completely invisible, though a few stalwarts bear its banner via such means as the Labour Representation Committee and Labour Briefing. But when it comes to attitudes to the police, even most of the left is found sorely wanting, failing to grapple with the nature of the state and its enforcers.

An example of the failure of sections of the left to expose the class nature of the police appears in the 2005 New Left Policy Forum: criminal justice by Harry Fletcher.[1] Here we read: “Policing should be community-based and intelligence-led. Government targets set for the police should be realistic and not conflict with those of other criminal justice agencies. The number of priorities and targets need to be rationalised. There should be real local accountability to boroughs and local authority areas. Decisions to stop and search should be based on intelligence, the quality of the intervention and the outcome. Consideration should be given to encouraging all new police officers to spend a minimum period of time in community liaison ... All contact with the same ethnic minority groups should be positively improved and indicators developed to maximise visible presence in the community.”

Well, no, actually, this is not what the working class or its movement needs or should in any way endorse. This and other left calls to modify what the police do sows the very illusions in the state that Marxists decry. The prime role of the police is not to safeguard the “community” in some neutral way, but to uphold ‘property rights’ - ie, the current class order.

In relation to establishing PCCs there were initially some timid Labour squeaks about accountability to an elected police authority. As if not only police authorities were a ‘good thing’, but Labourites becoming embroiled in them would in and of itself democratise them. Playing the fake accountability card in its turn, the Con-Dem coalition’s big lie has been that directly elected PCCs were more democratic; but, of course, they are no such thing. One might as well argue that directly elected mayors are more democratic, when in fact they are a means of ensuring that formal accountability is kept to the absolute minimum; this is especially so, given the weakness of the working class movement and the democratic pressure it can exert currently in Britain.

The home office claims that by having PCCs instead of police committees the government is replacing “bureaucratic accountability with democratic accountability”.[2] While it is true that police authorities “currently exercise significant powers relating to force budgets and strategic control without direct and visible accountability to the public”,[3] PCCs, who will be elected for a four-year term, will hardly be subject to democratic control, and neither will the police.

Apart from being able to appoint and dismiss their chief constable, each PCC will publish a five-year police and crime plan, determine local policing priorities, and set both a local precept and the annual force budget in consultation with the chief constable. The precept will be in addition to state grants, so the PCCs will be bound to the policies and programme of national government. Doubtless each PCC’s plan will have to take account of national policing challenges, being set out in a new “strategic policing requirement”.

Class strategy

Were a revolutionary to stand in the November elections, he or she might use the opportunity to challenge the whole notion of the state pretending to bend to the popular will by inserting its placemen (of whichever party) in PCC posts. This is unlikely to happen in any of the 41 policing areas, so it can only be down to those of us outside the process to expose the whole shebang for the establishment stitch-up that it is. Apart from the three main parties’ candidates, there will be a smattering of Plaid Cymru and English Democrat ones, with the occasional independent (which usually means a Tory in disguise).

What we have to do is develop our class’s strategy and tactics to match those of the class enemy. The PCC elections in these policing areas provides but the most current instance of doing so. For, while we must certainly demand the right of policemen and policewomen to organise and strike, we recognise that the bourgeoisie is never going to ‘democratise’ one of its main means of oppression. Our approach must be a call for replacing the police and armed forces by a popular militia.

If nothing else the miners’ Great Strike (1984-85) showed the true role of the police, as the tactics learnt in Northern Ireland were brought home. Uprisings in British cities in 1980 and 1981 jolted the bourgeoisie into further kitting up its mainland police.

These events gave bourgeois law and order much food for thought that has been thoroughly digested. One example of this in recent years has been the kettling of undefended student and other demonstrations: a punitive form of outdoor detention that has become yet another weapon in the police armoury of containment. Yet this year even police officers have found it necessary to demonstrate over work grievances resulting from Con-Dem cuts (though, strangely, no police-on-police violence was reported).

However, the working class movement does have the duty, right and potential to engage in collective solidarity, defend itself and, at the end of the day, prepare for revolution. Knowing the enemy means you can overcome it, and that is what Marxists are about. We do not appeal to the bourgeois state nor invite the working class to do so: instead, we need to look to the time when demonstrations, strikes and occupations are politically and physically able to defend themselves against police attack. It is only then that we would expect to see wavering in their ranks.

What we must conclude is that preparing to organise popular and workers’ defence is an essential part of building a Marxist party. Citizen and workers’ defence is nothing new. It is just that its legacy in Britain and around the world has been erased thanks to the social democratic and Stalinist betrayers in the working class movement over many decades; even many on the Trotskyist left have given up on the idea.


1 . ‘Criminal justice policy paper’, the result of New Left Policy Meetings co-sponsored by the New Left Unions and the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, and available in the ‘Policy’ section of the Labour Representation Committee website at http://l-r-c.org.uk/files/ criminal_justice_policy_paper.pdf. The author, Harry Fletcher, is an assistant general secretary of Napo, the “trade union and professional associa­tion” for family court and probation staff.

2 . www.homeoffice.gov.uk/police/police-crime-commissioners/questions/pcc-powers/index.html.

3 Ibid.