Stuck in the middle (with you). – A bluffers guide to Police Tweeting

“Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you”. (Stuck In the Middle With You, Stealers Wheel 1972 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMAIsqvTh7g).

Stuck

No ears were harmed in the making of this blogpost. The politicisation of the Police is a topic that is being explored through the medium of Twitter, these days. The impending elections for the Police and Crime Commisioner posts across the nation has led to some to proclaim that this will introduce overt politicisation of the Police, with many PCC candidates tied explicitly to political parties, who are able to assist them in producing the hefty £5000 deposit required to stand for the posts. Police tweeters and bloggers, however, are also being increasingly scrutinised for their political stances, with an apparent bias away from the Conservative party, and towards the Labour party. This post will explore the reasons for this thinking, and the wishful thinking of some of those tweeters.

Section 1, schedule 1 of the Police Regulations, 2003 (an amendment of the former Police Regulations) state

 

1.  A member of a police force shall at all times abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of his duties or which is likely to give rise to the impression amongst members of the public that it may so interfere; and in particular a member of a police force shall not take any active part in politics.

 

It is this Police Regulation which has caused some commentators to complain about the tone and content of many of the Police tweeters. Much of the content of their timelines has been given over to the issues which may be clumsily lumped together under the title of “Police Reform”. These include the so-called “Winsor” review – a review into Police Pay and Conditions undertaken by the former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, which raised sufficient ire among the service as to provoke a 30,000 strong march of serving Police officers through central London to protest at the detail of the two reports. Curious readers may wish to read the mostly neutral wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Winsor#Review_of_police_officers.27_.26_staff_pay_and_conditionsfor more details, or to the Police Debating Directive from twitter user @J_amesP ( http://thepolicedebatingdirective.blogspot.co.uk/search?updated-max=2012-08-19T23:24:00-07:00&max-results=7 ) for a more Police orientated view on the background to the procurement and research methods employed by Mr Winsor. Once the level of anger in the Police service was at fever pitch, the home secretary, Mrs Teresa May, announced that the new HMIC (Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary) would be Mr Tom Winsor. The person who had written the reviews into pay and conditions would now be the inspector of constabulary. To many officers, this was seen as a deliberate attempt to confront the Police, and in particular the Police Federation, who had largely seen off previous attempts to reform the Police under the last Conservative government with the “Sheehy” report.

The Policing minister was also not popular in the service. Nick Herbert, MP, was generally held in disdain by the rank and file members of the Police service, not least because of his aggressive personal style and seeming unwillingness to enter into meaningful dialogue with the service. He had a personal history of being involved with the so-called “Think Tank” industry, a selection of political lobbyists who hide under the guise of being research organisations. One such think tank is “Policy Exchange”, who claim charitable status for producing reports with laughable academic scrutiny. The research head for Justice, Mr Blair Gibbs, tweeted about being one of the “four horsemen of the Police Reform Apocalypse”. He had previously been given national air time to promote such well researched ideas as having all Police Officers travelling to and from work in full uniform. The recent announcements of Pension reform have seen anger rise to levels unknown in post-war history among the Police officers of England and Wales.

This is perhaps all the more remarkable as the Police have traditionally been a Conservative leaning organisation. Though the Police swear to uphold the law impartially, there has been no doubt that in post-war history they have been much more closely aligned to Conservative administrations than those of Labour. Their use and utilisation under the Thatcher governments during the miners strikes, for example, is a period of time that has continued to live in the memory of the general public and the cultural fabric of the Police itself. Where labour disputes take place, or protest marches, the Police will also be there, rightly or wrongly. When riots take place, it is the Police that are mobilised to regain control of the streets. I can remember seeing Police Officers while walking with my father as a child. “They all vote Tory”, he told me. Voting Tory was not an acceptable behaviour on our estate. Voting Tory was about the worst crime that you could commit. That is, aside from being a Police Officer.

Yet I joined the Police. I am not a particularly political person in the sense of party tribalism. Yes, I come from a family with a strong socialist background, but I have personally rejected most of that dogma as unrealistic and often absurd. I have also gone on to vote Tory at the last general election, having voted for all three political parties since I turned 18, dependant on my circumstances and the manifesto promises made. The strongly Conservative organisation I expected to join really didn’t exist in my county force. Of course, there was a general sense of reactionary thinking, and pervasive attitudes which were broadly nostalgic and inclined to maintain the status quo, but most of the cops I met and worked with were broad minded and not at all like the Stormtroopers of the state that I had expected to meet.

So how do so many Police Officers come to make what may be seen by many as political statements on twitter ? Most would argue that they aren’t taking an active part in party politics, and thus aren’t in contravention of the Police Regulations 2003. After all, everything can be politics, and while the private lives of Police Officers are subject regulation and control far above most other professions, everyone should be afforded the right to freedom of expression. In order to try and mitigate against the possibility that anyone on twitter could conceivably be influenced to vote (or not) for a particular party in an election, most Police tweeters use pseudonyms to avoid giving specific detail about their rank, role or geographical locations. This also allows them a degree of latitude in providing more opinion than the officially sanctioned Police twitter accounts, which may well provide rather generic crime prevention advice or information broadcasts, such as “Speeding enforcement in Sanford today – slow down!”, but are far less likely to “lift the lid” on deeper policing issues. While they may engage in debate – superficially, as the restraints on being officially sanctioned are such that in depth debate can rarely be supported by such an account – they will very rarely comment on the current state of Police reform or other weighty topics.

In the wake of what the vast majority of the Police see as an unlistening government pushing through dangerous changes to Police budgets, pay and conditions and creeping privatisation, some of the tweeters joined loose bands based around popular hashtags. The earlier hashtag organisations #AntiWinsorNetwork and #HoldTheLine were based around the overt opposition to government reforms. These hashtags came under scrutiny and criticism by the policing minister, who accused the Police of “playing the man, not the ball”. It was interesting to watch the evolution of the ideas of protest, and the refinement of thinking around the issues of police reform almost in real time. The hashtag #AntiWinsorNetwork has almost fallen out of use, and was replaced instead with the hashtags #PFTP and #PoliceForThePublic. This was formulated as an explicit reminder of Peels overarching principle that “The Police are the Public, and the Public are the Police”. It also sought to broaden support for constructive engagement with agents for change from not only within the Police, but also from members of the public themselves. It still serves as an effective means of identifying debate on issues of Police reform on twitter.

Yet some tweeters have been accused of openly supporting the Labour party. In some senses, this is not surprising. The Labour party appear to have conspiciously positioned themselves in opposition to the Home Secretary and the broad issues of Police Reform. Yvette Cooper, clearly a very skilled politician, has made much political mileage with those within the service about her personal opposition the government’s idea of Police Reform. This has provided an attractive “ray of hope” for some, who consider that the very strong likelihood is that the Labour party will form the next government in 2015 following the low approval ratings of the Coaltion government. Indeed, the Police Federation themselves have been keen to get close to the Labour party http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2112851/A-budget-cut-No-prime-sirloin-Plod.html ) – apologies, that link will take you to a piece from Quentin Letts. In the land of sunshine then, all will be well, the Labour party will come riding over the horizon branding procedural justice for the Police, and ensuring that the public are kept safe from damaging cuts. Except, it won’t happen. Many appear to have forgotten that the current disdain for the arbitration process for Police pay and conditions was actually broken by a Labour home secretary, Jacqui Smith, who was accused of betraying the Police service in 2008, when she failed to abide by the decision of the Police arbitration service. Still more seem to have forgotten the proliferation of absurd targets, which the less progressive senior managers of our force saw as a licence to effectively criminalise huge swathes of our youth in the relentless pursuit of “detections” and “performance”. This was an administration that drowned everything it touched in a bureaucratic mess of audit and micro-management, that used “creative discomfort” as an official public sector management policy, when it should have been consigned to the delete icon of a particularly bad farce writers desktop. Can anyone remember the Policing Pledge ? A poorly researched and appallingly implemented piece of central government inteference that adversely effected how we provided our service to the public. Was this any better than Teresa May’s also laughable suggestion that the only mission of the Police is to cut crime ?

The tragedy of the situation, therefore, is that the Police and the public have nobody to turn to for support if they are concerned that the austerity measures will effect the Police and their ability to protect them and to detect crime. They are unable to turn to the right, as the jokers there are completely refusing to enter into any meaningful dialogue to discuss the real terms results of eye watering cuts – especially those which effect the smaller, more rural forces. Likewise, we cannot trust the clowns to the left of us – those that proved themselves incapable of supporting the Police without burying them under mountains of legislation and bureaucracy. Where does that leave the Police and the public then ? Stuck together. In the middle. Try hashtag #PFTP for more details.

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