SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 179 June 2014

Police force fed changes

Many people have been surprised by Tory attacks on the police over the last few years, particularly given how vital they were to Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the trade union movement in the 1980s. Over 10,000 police jobs have gone since the Con-Dem coalition took office, with other changes brought in such as directly elected commissioners, annual fitness tests, and increased privatisation.

These have been dictated partly by the government’s austerity measures. They are also a recognition that public support for the police has been eroded by scandals over police responsibility for the deaths at Hillsborough in 1989, failure to investigate the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the killing of Ian Tomlinson during G20 protests in 2009, the shooting dead of Mark Duggan, which sparked the riots of 2011, and many other incidents. A YouGov survey in 2012 showed that trust in the police had dropped from 82% to 69%, and for senior officers from 72% to 49%.

At this year’s Police Federation conference, home secretary Theresa May threatened to impose the major changes to the Federation outlined in the recent Normington review. This comes after a series of revelations into how the Federation operates. The ‘plebgate scandal’, where police officers lied to back up claims that Tory whip, Andrew Mitchell, insulted police officers in Downing Street, angered the Tory party. More recently, there have been allegations of corruption and the hoarding of money, with local federations gaining from commissions on insurance services offered to members.

The Police Federation was set up by the government after the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) was crushed in the 1918-19 strikes, at a time of radicalisation under the impact of the Russian revolution. During the period of the strike the Metropolitan Police refused to help with strikebreaking and many NUPPO leaders joined the then still relatively new Labour Party. Establishing the Federation was part of a plan to make sure such disputes never happened again. As the Normington review puts it: "The creators of the Police Federation in 1919 believed that a police officer’s membership of a disciplined service with obligations to protect the public was incompatible with membership of a normal trade union with, among other rights, the right to take industrial action".

The police were given pay rises but the Federation was funded by the government. All police officers would be automatically enrolled into it but representation was organised by rank, giving disproportionate influence to inspectors, the most senior rank the Federation represents. The Normington review, forced through the Federation’s conference this year, tears much of this up. All of its finances must come from members’ contributions and its considerable reserves. State funding and automatic enrolment end.

Potentially the biggest change is in representation. Currently, the Federation gives equal representation to the three ranks: inspectors, sergeants and constables. Yet constables constitute 80% of the members. Unsurprisingly, the review states: "There is a majority view that this is unfair". It says there are "roughly 142 constables per constable representative, 31 sergeants per sergeant representative, and 13 inspectors per inspector representative".

While the exact make-up of the structures will be negotiated in each of the UK’s 43 police forces, the proposal is that at least 20% of Federation representatives come from each rank, with none having more than 50% representation. This could have the unintended consequence of ‘radicalising’ the Federation, given that more conservative attitudes generally come with a higher ranking.

However, the general secretary (who does not have to be a Federation member!) will be elected by the new executive board, which is itself elected by a national council of branch secretaries and chairs. The only position rank-and-file members would elect directly is their own branch chair and, eventually, the national chair. The Federation’s conference length and delegate levels are being reduced. The main aim is to cut costs. May has backed the changes to help neuter opposition to the austerity measures. Given the continuing cut-backs, however, they could have the opposite effect.

Iain Dalton

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