As voters go to the polls to elect a new police and crime commissioner today, Alex Moore investigates the story story of the newport polling station where nobody voted.

There’s one fact that absolutely everyone knows about the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Inconveniently, it’s only half true.

It is, however, a “fact” that was widely reported at the time and that it is still likely to come up in any discussion about PCCs, their role and their profile.

The public was not educated about those inaugural elections, people say. PCCs were seen as a waste of money and their elections a waste of time, they add. Then, to illustrate this point, they unfailingly bring up “that polling station in Gwent where literally no-one voted”.

The venue

Essentially, any indoor space large enough to place a few tables and voting booths can be selected as a polling station. Local authorities – whose job it is to administer elections – prefer spaces that they already own, like schools, leisure centres and libraries, but they also have a duty to make each polling station geographically convenient for the voters in the area it serves, its “polling district”. If council-owned venues don’t meet the requirement, private premises like churches, pubs or – in this case – sports clubs can be approached.

Bettws was a growing area of Newport. A new housing estate had just been built and the homes were in the process of being marketed and occupied. Its size justified creating a dedicated polling district to cover it. The alternative – tacking this estate on to a neighbouring district – would have required voters to travel to one of the four other polling stations that already existed in the Bettws ward of Newport City Council.

South Wales Argus: Malpas Cricket Club in Bettws Lane was chosen as a polling station in 2012. Picure: GoogleMalpas Cricket Club in Bettws Lane was chosen as a polling station in 2012. Picure: Google (Image: Google Street View)

A new polling district requires a new polling station, and Malpas Cricket Club, on the south side Bettws Lane, was chosen. It was walkable from the new estate but also on the main route towards the city centre and the M4, giving voters the option of stopping on the way to or from work. Furthermore it was available, as you might expect a cricket club to be in November.

The downside was that the estate the polling station served was at the time only sparsely populated; only 69 registered voters lived in its homes so far. As the poll workers set up the station that morning ahead of 7am opening, they must have been anticipating a slow day.

The voters

Newport City Council’s communications department has confirmed to me that none of those 69 people walked through the doors to vote that day. So in that sense the “fact” that no-one voted at that polling station is true.

However, 15 of those voters had a very good reason for not going. They had already voted – by post.

This might seem like splitting hairs, but the council’s PR people were keen – and right – to point out to me that 15 out of 69 equates to 21% participation in the PCC election. While miniscule compared to a parliamentary election (turnout hovered around 65% in Newport West during the decade’s four general elections), it is, compared to the 14% turnout in the Gwent Police force area as a whole or the 15% England and Wales average, impressive.

The reaction

However, the zero-turnout story – with its notional echoey hall, ticking clock and cleared throats – was too good to resist.

Councillor Matthew Evans, who then (and now) led Newport Council’s Conservative opposition, was quoted in a BBC report saying it was “frankly daft” to hold an election in November – more on that later – but added that the subject of the election “wasn’t a topic that people felt passionately about” anyway.

The Daily Telegraph went further, describing Bettws as a place “where nobody is interested in the police”.

Speaking recently, Councillor Kevin Whitehead, an independent member who represents the Bettws, took a different approach. Residents were and are interested in the police, he said, but their trust and interest had been eroded by years of neglect and they did not buy the argument that a new figurehead would reverse that.

South Wales Argus: Cllr Kevin Whitehead thinks some politicians underestimate communities such as Bettws.Cllr Kevin Whitehead thinks some politicians underestimate communities such as Bettws. (Image: Chris Tinsley)

“I believe out-of-touch politicians underestimate the psyche of people they purport to represent on estates like ours,” he said.

His constituents were struggling to “keep their heads above water” so had little to thank the political class for, he said. In addition, police strategies to tackle anti-social behaviour in Bettws “often ended in failure”, he said. He said he supported the front-line officers who had a difficult job to do, but said residents had often been disappointed.

“A lack of action on promises made to the public creates an apathetic public,” Cllr Whitehead said. “Always has and always will.”

In addition to this, he said Malpas Cricket Club – his emphasis – was a confusing choice of polling venue.

Malpas Cricket Club is indeed in the Bettws ward. The border separating it from the Malpas ward immediately to the east roughly follows the Monmouthshire canal, yet the club’s pavilion and pitch are to the west of both.

Long-standing residents of the area might just accept this quirk. However, recent arrivals – such as those who had just moved onto a newbuild estate – might walk or drive past a building with the word “Malpas” on it and think “Oh, I’m in Malpas now”. On polling day, seeing a “polling station” sign as well, they could be forgiven for thinking “I’m a Bettws resident; that’s not for me” and carrying on their way.

If this geographical mismatch was a big factor, it follows that postal voters would be unaffected by it. The on-the-day voting venue is irrelevant to them.

The postbox

In the mainland UK you don’t need a particular reason to apply for a postal vote. Until 2001 you would have been expected to vote in person unless you had a specific reason not to, like a disability or work commitment. The Representation of the People Act 2000 changed that, making no-reason postal voting available to anyone who requested it.

The fact that 15 people applied for, and used, their postal ballot while the remaining 54 didn’t vote in any form seems like an extraordinary coincidence. Perhaps people who knew about their postal voting rights tended to be the same ones who knew, and cared, about the PCC elections?

South Wales Argus: Ian Jonston was elected as Gwent Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012, but did not stand for re-election.Ian Jonston was elected as Gwent Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012, but did not stand for re-election. (Image: Becky Matthews)

Across England and Wales, the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner polls were a big day for post votes. In its report on the running of that poll, the Electoral Commission wrote that “more than 5.8 million postal votes were issued”, accounting for “16.1% of the eligible electorate”. Of these, 2.8 million – or 48.9% - were opened, completed, returned and counted.

The same report says that just 5.5 million votes of any sort were cast across England and Wales. So postal votes actually outnumbered in-person votes, narrowly.

For comparison, the 2016 PCC elections saw 9.2 million votes case, of which 3.4 million were postal, and in 2021, 11.4 million votes were cast, 4.4 million postal – return rates of 37% and 39% respectively.

So if postal votes were ever going to dwarf in-person votes, PCC election day 2012 was the day it would happen.

The timing

The high postal voting rate was not the only unusual thing about the 2012 PCC election. It was held in November, a highly unusual month in which to hold a nationwide set of elections.

By law, local government elections, Welsh Assembly, London mayoral and London Assembly elections are held on the first Thursday in May. General elections to the UK parliament often coincide with it, as in 1997, 2005, 2010 and 2015. Others have been held in pleasant spring or summery months like June (1987, 2001 and 2017) or April (1992). At the time, going to the polls – and expecting activists to deliver leaflets, candidates to attend engagements and so on – in one of the darker, wetter months of the year was unheard of.

The election was, indeed, originally supposed to be on Thursday, May 3, 2012. First introduced into parliament in November 2010, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill cleared the Commons in March the following year. However, it got bogged down in the House of Lords and only became law in September 2011, too late for a May 2012 election to be arranged. A new date had to be inserted into legislation as it became the 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act: “The poll at the ordinary election of police and crime commissioners in 2012 is to be held on 15 November”.

However, even the very next sub-clause seems to acknowledge that November isn’t the best month because it says polls in subsequent four-year cycles are “to be held on the ordinary day of election” meaning the first Thursday in May.

Cllr Evans, Newport’s opposition leader, may have had a point calling this one-off date “daft”. As polls closed, the counts began and returning officers started announcing turnout figures, it was clear the numbers were not high. The Electoral Commission would note that is was “the lowest recorded level of participation at a peacetime nonlocal government election in the UK”. The previous record has been 23% for the 1999 European Parliament elections.

The aftermath

In the week following the 2012 election, Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson attempted to explain.

“These were new elections taking place at an unfamiliar time of year,” she said, arguing that her agency had “made [it] clear at every stage that it would be important to engage effectively with voters”. She criticised government decisions about the running of the election and the publicity surrounding it, reporting that 37% of survey respondents said they had lacked information about the candidates or the election itself.

“Over a quarter (28%) of people said that they knew ‘nothing at all’ and 48% knew ‘not very much’ about what the PCC elections were about,” it continued.

Its seven recommendations included “ensuring cost-effective and neutral public awareness  information about future elections”.

The changes seem to have had the desired effect. Turnout rose from the 15.1% of 2012 to 26.6% then 34.1% in 2016 and 2021 respectively.

This doesn’t make is inevitable, or even likely, that one individual polling station should see both an unusually high postal voting rate and an unusually low in-person voting rate. However, when added to the factors Cllr Whitehead described - potential geographical confusion over the polling venue, disillusionment with politics in general and scepticism about the commissioner role – it should make it a bit less surprising. Especially so when you start with a low number like 69.

The redemption

It seems as if the lesson was learned. Malpas Cricket Club was not used as a polling station in the following PCC election, in May 2016, nor the EU membership referendum held the following month. The same goes for the 2017 and 2019 general elections, the 2016 and 2021 Senedd elections and the 2017 and 2022 city council elections. In all those cases, Bettws residents have been asked to vote at church or school premises instead.

It's time to correct the record. Bettws cares about police, policing and the Police and Crime Commissioner as much as any other area of Newport, or Gwent. Geography, timing and the expansion of postal voting came together to turn one small number – 69 – into an even smaller one – zero in-person voters.

“Nobody cares”, the national press said. The truth is, compared to most other parts of England and Wales, Bettws cared more.