The inside story of a high stakes day at the Police Federation conference
Well, yesterday didn’t go according to plan. The Independent Review, represented by Sir David Normington and myself, was due to address the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth. A big concern was that the Conference would pick and choose between the 36 recommendations of the Review’s final report and pass one or two amendments that would alter the substance of the recommendations. The script was for the Home Secretary to utter a few tough words to focus minds then the Review would have a better chance of passing intact. Sir David would do his best to persuade then we’d all keep our fingers crossed. But then the Home Secretary didn’t quite follow the script. In fact, she didn’t follow it at all.
There were a few tough words. Then a few more. Then some brutal changes to the Police Federation’s statutory position. The Police Federation was the target. But policing as a whole took the hit. We were sat between Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and Keith Vaz, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee – who seemed as astonished as everyone else. On the train on the way home, I was discussing with a journalist what speech in modern political history compared to Theresa May’s address yesterday? The closest comparison was Neil Kinnock’s attack on Militant at the Labour Party Conference 1985. But these weren’t modern day Derek Hattons in the room. The two thousand or so delegates at the Police Federation Conference are police officers.
Margaret Thatcher never spoke in front of a potentially hostile audience in this way. Theresa May did and she didn’t hold back. Much media analysis has focused on the politics of the Tory leadership succession. There is undoubtedly some of that. But this speech was as visceral as it was calculating. This was a politician who has become exasperated with the pace of police reform. And that was symbolised by the Police Federation failing to accept the Review’s 36 recommendations quickly after they were published by the RSA in January.
There was raw emotion, a genuine desire to see change, and political calculation. Only such a combination could have had the impact that yesterday’s speech did. If there was any doubt before, there is no doubt now that Theresa May is a front-runner to succeed David Cameron. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if the Conservative party elected its second woman leader before the other major parties had even elected one?
On the more micro political scale, her speech gave the Independent Review both an opportunity and created a threat. The threat was that anger at the speech would destabilise the whole conference and anti-reformers, some of whom are in very powerful positions, would seize their chance. The opportunity was that the Review could be accepted without amendments. Since January, a whole series of discussions had been taking place and the problem was that the Joint Central Committee had proposed a series of amendments that in some cases tweaked details but in other cases altered the substance of the recommendations. They could have voted through a mess rather than a coherent package and made a grave political error in the process. The simple politics of the moment meant that if anything other than approval of all 36 recommendations was passed yesterday, it would be another spectacular own goal for the Police Federation. If 35 were passed that would still be seen as blocking reform. It had to be all 36.
In the hour we had between the Home Secretary’s speech and Sir David’s own speech, there was a speech to re-write (we had absolutely no idea what the Home Secretary was going to say), a strategy to decide, lunch to eat and a round of shuttle diplomacy to be embarked upon. The problem we had was that there was an ‘over-arching motion’ but the wording – taken from our Final Report in fairness – could be interpreted as kicking reform into the long grass. Unless there was specific reference to supporting or implementing the 36 recommendations it wouldn’t work. The problem was that it wasn’t clear under conference rules whether an amendment could be debated or not.
So as Sir David addressed conference, we didn’t know what was going to happen next. All we knew is that we had to back endorsement of the 36 recommendations as published in the Final Report. The speech went down very well indeed. Theresa May’s very bad cop routine made it easy to be good cop but a line that said that ‘you need to feel good about yourselves and the work your do’ really resonated. It applied not just to the delegates in the room but to the police more widely and even to all professionals in public service. Reform and cuts are necessary but public service workers need to feel good about the good work they do.
At the end of our session, a closed session was called for all the Branch chairs and secretaries. It was clear at this point that things were beginning to shift. A mechanism had been found to make the amendment – as long as the branches agreed. It was clear that the Met Police Federation were unlikely to. They aren’t anti-reform as such but they do like to take their time over things.
So there was an anxious wait while it was agreed that the amended all-encompassing motion was to be put to Conference – something that the Conference Arrangements Committee also had to agree to. And this was the hour when things began to turn. There was a clear endorsement by the branches that a motion amended with a reference to implementation of the 36 recommendations should be put before conference.
There was one more hurdle to clear before the amended motion could even be discussed – a point of order from the Met. In Response, the Chair, Steve Williams, called the Chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee to the platform. People who Chair Conference Arrangements Committees can be officious to say the least. But this guy, with a wry smile, said quite plainly that the Conference could get bogged down in the detail of rules and regulations or it could have an historic discussion. He favoured the latter course so the debate was on.
It was clear very quickly that the mood of the conference had swung behind the entire package of reforms. It was passed by the overwhelming majority. The word ‘historic’ is over-used in our culture. But this was genuinely an historic moment. A key public institution had embraced reform and a Home Secretary had taken on the police – brutally. What’s more, a Federation Branch at the centre of controversies surrounding Andrew Mitchell – the West Midlands – had put forward the motion embracing change. This was a particularly pleasing aspect of the day.
It’s not the end of the tale of course. The Police Federation could begin to drag their heels again. They could pass changes that don’t only alter the technical detail but the substance of the reforms also. That would be a gargantuan error.
If they proceed at pace, the Police Federation may even be able to dissuade Theresa May from introducing opt-in to membership. This is a problem not just for the Police Federation itself but it may undermine the legal coverage that the Police Federation provides to almost all officers of constable, sergeant, inspector and chief inspector rank. It is important that police officers have coverage and support. That was the constitutional deal that was struck in 1919 when the police were banned from taking strike action. If the Police Federation implements the changes rapidly then that constitutional position should remain in my personal view.
The Police Federation demonstrated a political smartness yesterday. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that this has been lacking at times in recent history. Theresa May showed herself to be an uncompromising politician, capable of making high stakes bets. The hope must be that they can both quickly mend fences. That is the way for the police to retain their authoritative and necessary voice in our national debate about policing, communities and crime. As the Review argued, a trusted, professional and unified Police Federation is in the public interest and, consequently, in the interests of the police too. Yesterday may have felt like a nadir but actually I think it may be a new beginning. It just won’t feel that way at the moment.
Anthony Painter was Director, Independent Review of the Police Federation.