A review is to be carried out into how the police and crime commissioners (PCC) elections were conducted, the Electoral Commission has said.
Fewer than 15% of voters turned out in the 41 English and Welsh police areas electing a PCC, a peacetime low.
Ministers said a lack of familiarity and understanding of the role might have been behind the low turnout.
The Conservatives won 16 posts and Labour 13. Twelve went to independents, including some ex-police officers.
The commissioners will be in post until 2016 and will have the power to set policing priorities, budgets and also to hire and fire chief constables.
Prime Minister David Cameron denied the low number of voters meant the role lacked a popular mandate and predicted the public would become more interested when PCCs began their work.
But former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke said Mr Cameron was “quite wrong” and those elected had “no mandate to lead policing in their communities”.
He told BBC News the low turnout together with “large numbers of people spoiling their papers and many people saying they have no knowledge at all or information about the elections as a result of the way the government organised it means there isn’t a mandate”.
The government has been criticised for not providing funding for a mailshot as well as for holding the poll in the winter.
‘Bad for taxpayers’
Ann Barnes, the new PCC for Kent – where there was a turnout of 16% – said the election had been run “disgracefully”, with “anger” among the electorate because they did not know who was standing.
But despite the low turnout she maintained she “got quite a big mandate in Kent because we won very comprehensively here in the county”.
“I don’t feel limited at all because most of the people who voted for me actually decided they wanted me as their commissioner and they gave me the mandate to be their commissioner,” she told BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme.
She said her position as an independent candidate had been “absolutely critical” to her success because of the electorate’s distrust for politicians”.
Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told Today: “The individuals have been properly selected in a democratic process and the issue of numbers is absolutely not one for chief constables.”
He said some PCCs had “police experience and others will bring other things to the party”.
Constables should concentrate on bringing the PCCs “up to speed on the sheer complexity of the world in which we operate very quickly”, he added.
Jenny Watson, Electoral Commission chairwoman, said the elections had taken place “at an unfamiliar time of year, which is why we have made clear at every stage that it would be important to engage effectively with voters”.
“The government took a number of decisions about how to run these elections that we did not agree with.
“But what is important now is that the right lessons are learnt: we will talk to voters, candidates and returning officers to understand what worked and what didn’t.”
The review board is likely to present its findings to Parliament early in the new year.
Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron warned that commissioners would struggle to claim a mandate, as the low turn out meant some were elected by a small percentage of the total electorate.
But Universities Minister David Willetts said on Radio 4’s Any Questions that turnout would improve over time, citing the inaugural London mayoral contest in 2000.
“The first election to the Mayor of London had a low turnout then it gradually grew as people realised the significance of the post,” he said.
In other election developments:
- Devon and Cornwall was the final PCC area to declare in the early hours of Saturday morning. The seat was won by the Conservative candidate Tony Hogg with 35.24% of the final vote
- Labour’s Andy Sawford is to replace Tory Louise Mensch as the MP for Corby in Northamptonshire. Mr Sawford became the first Labour candidate in 15 years to take a Conservative seat in a by-election. Mrs Mensch told the BBC she “was to blame” for her party’s loss.
- Labour candidates were also triumphant in the two other by-elections on Thursday, holding the seats for the party. Lucy Powell won the Manchester Central seat and Stephen Doughty won in Cardiff South and Penarth
Unions rounded on the Tories today after dismal turnouts ensured the nation’s first elections for police and crime supremos became an undemocratic shambles.
Two polling booths in England and Wales recorded zero voters as huge swathes of the population ignored – or did not know they had – the chance to have their say in the £100 million process to pick powerful new police and crime commissioners.
Unions RMT and PCS leapt on the low numbers, saying they demolished hypocritical Tory attempts to introduce a minimum threshold for union ballots.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “In light of the pitiful turnout I hope we will hear no more garbage from London Mayor Boris Johnson and other right-wing Tories about raising the bar in trade union strike ballots.
“If Tory MP Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson or any of the rest of the anti-union Tories want a public debate on their demands to interfere with trade union democracy they should contact us and have the guts to put up or shut up.
“Their policy of one law for the political class and another law for the working class is blasted wide open by the mass abstentions in these elections.”
Elections expert Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University said today’s vote could go down in history as the worst turnout ever.
“It will raise questions about whether this whole exercise was worth it in the first place,” he said.
And PCS said the appalling exercise sounded the “death knell” for Tory-led calls for thresholds in trade union ballots.
Ballots it had called in the past were way above many recorded on Thursday, it said, despite laws brought in by a previous Tory government and left in place by Labour which meant union members are restricted to postal votes “which suppress participation.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Everyone wants a thriving democracy and better participation, but these low turnouts should sound the death knell for the shrill Tory-led cries for thresholds for union ballots.
“We have consistently argued for reform of union ballots so instead of trying to score political points every time we have a vote, the government should talk to us about extending outdated postal voting to the use of modern technology.”
Many areas confirmed turnouts today were well below 20 per cent.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the elections had descended into a shambles.
She said: “Time and again on the doorstep people told us either they didn’t have enough information, didn’t know the elections were happening, didn’t support them or didn’t want to go out in the dark to vote.”
In the most radical shake-up of the service for half a century, the new 41 commissioners outside London – expected to earn up to £100,000 a year – will control police budgets, set priorities and have the power to hire and fire chief constables.
Even now Home Secretary Theresa May insists that commissioners have a mandate to act as the “voice of the people” no matter how many of them have taken part in the elections.
When the overall turnout is just 18.5 per cent, it is axiomatic that many areas have an even lower figure, with the Bettws polling station in Newport not registering a single vote for the Gwent police crime commissioner.
So less than a fifth of the electorate has felt enthused enough to go to the local polling station to give some superannuated politician or self-opinionated “independent” a £100,000-a-year cushy number with power to control police budgets, set policing priorities and back or sack chief constables – and that constitutes a mandate?
Trade union leaders Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka have drawn attention to Tory Party hypocrisy over the question of voter turnout.
It would be a foolhardy trade union leadership that called a strike on the basis of such figures, but it’s not an issue for the Tories when they’re imposing a policy that lacks public backing.
Tory backwoodsmen will see no contradiction in accepting these derisory turnouts as representing the “voice of the people” while continuing to demand a prohibitive minimum participation in trade union ballots for industrial action.
We should not be surprised. It’s simply the Tories seeking further legal restrictions on the organisations most capable of mobilising public opinion against the government’s anti-people policies.
Low turnouts in trade union elections are largely the government’s fault since it insists on postal voting only, rejecting secure, independently verified online, phone and workplace polling.
Cameron’s insistence on bringing in commissioners can be understood from his comment that they will demonstrate their worth by showing that they are “holding the police to account, they are getting things done for local people, they are prioritising the law and order crackdown that the people want to see.”
This conjures up images of a John Wayne-style sheriff shooting from the lip and ordering the chief constable to act in line with the commissioner’s knee-jerk prejudices rather than take measured professional responses to crime as a result of discussions with the police authority.
It is a manifestation of the corporate-style chief executive approach to public service exemplified by the switch in local democracy from a committee system to an all-powerful mayor.
So, full marks to the people of Hartlepool who have voted to reverse that process and return power to elected local councillors.