These police commissioner elections should terrify us all

Of the few encouraging signs about today’s PCC elections, one is the total unenthusiasm on display: I know only one person planning to vote, and friends are organising collective ballot-spoils. This couldn’t contrast more with Barack Obama’s reelection, the run-up to which included all the usual choruses of You must vote! and Don’t forget!

By most of the self-declared progressives I know, the choice to abstain was treated almost as a kind of treason; one acquaintance in Australia wishes voting were compulsory around the world, as it is there, and I’ve heard the same suggested closer to home.

Assuming that when our new police commissioners are chosen, turnout is as miserable as now seems likely, the case for staying at home on national election days is worth contemplating. Traditionally, one argument is that they’re not just how people choose specific governments, but how they choose in general to be governed. The most politically important part of voting is entering the ballot box; to step into it is to legitimise the electoral process, granting the eventual winner our consent to govern us, even if it’s not them we support. Both in America last week and in 2010, when David Cameron came more-or-less to power, a great deal of coverage went to people unable to vote, left standing in their queues for hours – trumpeting the notion that, whatever government resulted, its right to rule was popularly acknowledged. (In fact, four people out of ten chose abstention in both cases.)

The vote, paradoxically, is always a minister’s first port of call when something unpopular needs justifying. Invading Iraq might face widespread opposition, but Tony Blair’s party were elected to take tough stances; austerity might be viewed as needless and cruel, but people chose a government to make tough decisions. More than anywhere, and most implicitly, it’s with the police that government’s entitlement is presumed. Think back to the riots in August last year, with the demands on social networks and in print that lethal force be authorised, or the military contacted. The smashing of shop windows and burning of cars was mindless violence; the potential widespread shooting of citizens by police was a means by which to restore order. Why is the violence of the state the only kind acceptable? Because government directs its forces, and we elected the government.

Our leaders, we tell ourselves, only hold power over us because we say they can. Except sometimes we don’t, and they still do.

One side might always regret a lost election, but inconclusive ones spell trouble for whole political establishments. That Cameron came so visibly to office by Nick Clegg’s direct choice and not the U.K. population’s is more than just a point against their government; it exposes the superficiality of Britain’s electoral regime, just as it caused skittishness across the pond when George W. Bush entered the White House with fewer people’s votes than opponent Al Gore. There are other inadequacies, too. We’re encouraged to vote based on politicians’ promises, but none of these are binding and most are broken once in office; we’re faced typically with a forced choice between two or three realistic candidates, of predictable backgrounds and broadly similar political leanings; what power we’re granted, we only hold on one day every four or five years; we’ve no ability to change our minds, or update the scoreboards as opinions shift – the Labour Party, for example, retains around as many seats as it won in 2010 with 29 percent of the vote, despite polling in the low to mid-forties today; we make our voices heard as much as possible, but see major parties’ financial backers drown them out.

Still we go to the polls, encouraged by news broadcasts about democracy and freedom, convincing ourselves that whatever future legislators do, we chose – that, as with all the most effective placebos, we have an investment in it, and no right to complain. However you vote, an English teacher told me once, you always end up with the government, and a socialist truncheon looks much the same as a Thatcherite one. In the past decade, governments of all colours have chipped away at our civil liberties with surveillance and shadowy arrests, no-protest zones and kettled schoolchildren. Far from solving these problems, the electoral cycle seems to me to validate them. Ticking boxes on ballot slips less often demonstrates what freedom we have than makes us feel more complicit in its erosion.

What happens when the police themselves make vaunted, tenuous claims of public appointment? It’s from them that government derives its power, after all, and not the other way around.

So far, major police decisions (on whether to fire water cannon at demonstrators, for example) have usually been checked in practice by a need for the approval of elected politicians like Theresa May. If publicly appointed commissioners allow them more autonomy, as seems to be the aim and matches the Cameroon ideal of ‘liberated’ schools and hospitals, no such external validation will be needed. The shiny if inauthentic seal of electoral support will, on its own, become a means of validating police actions, just as it’s used to validate the most despised government policies. The overt parliamentary costuming of candidates, drawn along party political lines and including the likes of John Prescott, adds to the effect.

Political parties, on the other hand, are privately bankrolled. However ‘modernising’ Conservatives might be, their party’s funding depends largely on City of London financiers‘ approval; however centrified a Labour leader might want to become, trade unions’ ire must never be raised. Their ambitions may be extreme, at whichever end of the political spectrum, but the vested interests of relied-upon donors limits their actions for good or ill. Our publicly funded police force, on the other hand, can count on its continued income; should its actions become draconian or its reputation tarred, the threat of financial starvation will never hem it in.

Begin electing police leaders, then, and we give them all of government’s entitlements, with none of the drawbacks.

These PCC elections should terrify us all, because they aim to give constables the false legitimacy ministers wield: it’s the police force’s freedom, not ours, they’ve been devised to increase, so let’s hope for the lowest possible of turnouts, because when police are given more freedom, we almost always lose some of ours.

P.E. lessons ruined how I felt about myself

Recently, John Prescott and I disagreed.

The Olympics were nearing a close, and a tweet from Gaby Hinsliff about compulsory PE in schools set us off. His stance was that “we need competitive sport” since “learning how to lose gracefully is just as important as winning”. I was unconvinced, as I was four days previously, when David Cameron demanded, “a revival of competitive sport in primary schools”, saying “we need to end the “all must have prizes” culture”.

I told John Prescott that my experience of competitive sport in P.E. lessons was more about humiliation – gracefully, mind – but I want to say more here than I can on Twitter. I came out aged twelve in the summer of Year 8, and particularly after that, P.E. lessons slowly ruined how I felt about myself.

Like the so called War on Christmas and laws against cross-wearing, Cameron’s “all must have prizes” culture seems little more than an invention of the British right wing press. Certainly, I never encountered it. At primary school I dreaded sports day: uncoordinated, hay fever-afflicted and unable to breathe through my nose, I was universally incompetent. Because participation was mandatory, I usually opted for the hundred-metre sprint – my rationale for this, aged seven or eight, was that it would be over quickly. While this was true, choosing the shortest race also meant unmitigated defeat by the quickest runners, before the entire school and their parents.

It might seem absurd today, but that hurt. I ended up in tears twice, and later faked illness to avoid it – presumably teachers knew I was lying, but took pity on me. Where I excelled at art projects and English, the kids who struggled at that weren’t made to enter contests where large crowds cheered for me and they finished last. I enjoy watching certain competitions now, even ruthlessly dog-eat-dog ones – RuPaul’s Drag Race springs to mind – but I know everyone involved is present by choice. Making anyone, particularly children, compete publicly and against their will in something for which they’ve no skill or enthusiasm seems deeply cruel. (Yes, I have issues, but when I tweeted about this it struck a chord, so perhaps many do.)

My secondary school was a comprehensive, but with its maroon and bottle green uniform, ridiculous Latin motto and expansive playing fields, it would never have admitted it. I got to know and hate those playing fields over several years, each of which involved a games curriculum of traditional team sports doubtless approved of by David Cameron: rugby in the autumn term, football in the spring and either tennis or cricket in the summer. (These were the boys’ sports. Activities were split by gender, with girls getting a mostly different and equally traditional schedule – hockey, rounders and so on.)

During lessons, especially once out, I faced just about all the unpleasantness you could imagine: coming last or next to last, depending on the group, I got called a colourful range of names including literally dozens – I once made a list – of homophobic slurs, from “freak” to “faggot”. In the winter, when rain had muddied the ground, I got pelted with dirt, and it wasn’t unusual for people to spit on me. I still remember how that felt. Then the physical bullying: kickings, in particular, or being hit with sporting implements; the hard edge of a tennis racquet once gave me a black eye. This was a rare occasion when teachers intervened.

I’m not sure if they otherwise didn’t know what was happening, or if fear of acknowledgingthe gay thing meant they didn’t step in. It certainly stopped me from saying anything. Not all my P.E. teachers were conventionally nasty, but some made things more difficult than they already were. My twelve-year-old self once lost control of his breathing and fell to ground, unable to stop panting, after being made to run 1.5km. The teacher who set the task responded to expressions of concern with, “Oh, Alex is just being silly.” She later said, “More effort, next time”.

Though I couldn’t then articulate it, P.E. lessons made me feel that my body belonged to someone else. From mandatory activities I was bad at and which hurt, to the physical punishments some teachers used – forgetting shin pads meant lapping both football fields five times – to having to undress in front of people who hated me, exposing a body I’d started to hate. Then, of course, the fascistic “bleep test”. I wondered, and still do, why authorities needed to know how long I could sprint for before being exhausted. After one test, a boy in the class said I should kill myself. Several times, I tried it.

P.E. apologists often echo the severe Mr. Hume, who once told us, “There are too many unfit kids today.” But who put him in charge of my body, and what gave government the right to deem it inadequate? If P.E. really created fitter kids, wouldn’t decades of increasingly strict requirements have evolved children into Adonises by now? Between my first and last P.E. lessons, no-one’s fitness level seemed to change.

I don’t believe this is really the motivation. If it were, why object, as Cameron does, to “Indian dance, or whatever”? Students who excel at sport should clearly have facilities at school, and primary schools need P.E. to identify them. But why not stress dance, Pilates, or martial arts as much as the public school sports he grew up around? I don’t know how common my experience of P.E. lessons is, but the syllabus did make it harder for me as a gay-identifying teenager: to fail at things so traditionally masculine as playing rugby or throwing heavy objects, especially in single gender classes, is often to encounter explicit homophobia.

For many, including me, this subject is emotive, and those who defend compulsory P.E. – especially post-primary school, and in the shape of traditional competitive sports – often do it powerfully. But to me it never seems to do much good, and can sometimes do unspeakable harm.