This article is from the February issue of Total Politics

On 16 November 2012, everyone in England and Wales, outside of the capital, will wake up with a new sheriff in town.

A week after the elections on Thursday 15 November this year, 41 new police and crime commissioners (PCCs) will take up their posts in each of the constabularies outside London. For a four-year term, they will have the power to appoint and sack the chief constable, to allocate budgets, and to draw up the strategic plan for policing in their area. They will be accountable to bigger electorates than any Member of Parliament and have more power than any backbencher. They represent one of the biggest shake-ups in policing for decades. It is one of the most important constitutional reforms since Tony Blair’s heyday, yet, to date, most voters are blissfully unaware of what’s coming, blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, down the road.

Ministers hope that non-traditional and independent candidates emerge for the posts, rather as Blair did when he established elected mayors over a decade ago. Police minister Nick Herbert told a seminar in Sussex in November that he hoped “dynamic leaders, community champions, pioneers and entrepreneurs” would come forward to serve as police commissioners. I doubt he had Katie Price in mind.

The biggest challenge to be faced by any candidate for police commissioner is public apathy. With limited powers and no way of raising resources, people may view the posts as a waste of public money. Those candidates who can capture the public imagination with more than promises of public executions and a return to the birch, will do well. Those that have clever ideas for better policing within shrinking budgets will be taken seriously. A serious candidate will have to demonstrate the political skills of balancing competing demands, negotiation and mediation, but it should be more than a job for retread MPs who’ve lost their seats, or retired police officers.

It seems likely that the English Defence League (EDL) and British National Party (BNP) will field candidates. It is vital that the elections don’t become a Dutch auction for whoever can be the ‘toughest on crime’. For example, in my area, Sussex, there are big issues regarding hate crimes and homophobic violence, which the police need to address with great sensitivity. An EDL or BNP police commissioner would surely fail in that task.

So, what are the campaign challenges for a wannabe police commissioner?

1. The candidates will have to explain the role and function of the posts to which they’re seeking election. The government or Electoral Commission will not be spending a fortune on explaining the posts to the public. It will be down to the candidates to breach the walls of ignorance, indifference and cynicism. Each candidate will need a doorstep spiel to persuade the voters why it’s even worth turning out to vote for posts that are little-understood or desired. A candidate who can make the possibilities of the post vivid and popular will be in pole position.

2. The candidates’ programmes will need to reflect shrinking police budgets. Commissioners will be responsible for slicing up a smaller cake. Their first job will be to decide where to make cuts. The first months will be about balancing frontline and back-office activities, so the election campaign must be about priorities and tough choices, not making wild promises to spend more. The winners will have shown their grasp of fine detail and creative budgeting, not uncosted pledges to put more police on the beat.

3. None of the parties wants to spend money on expensive campaigns. The Lib Dems have made it clear they will not be financially supporting local candidates. Labour is similarly cash-strapped. So unless a James Goldsmith-style millionaire emerges, candidates will have to rely on low-resource, high-impact campaigns. That means more reliance on social media and digital campaigning, alongside traditional media relations, street stalls and blitzing. No campaign will be able to afford high levels of voter contact, billboards, direct mail or phone banks. The winners will run smart, not expensive, campaigns.

4. Candidates from mainstream parties need to take the independent challenge seriously. It came as something of a shock to the main parties when independents won the elected mayor posts in places such as Bedford, Hartlepool, Tower Hamlets, Mansfield and Middlesbrough. It seems probable that many of the 41 new commissioners will be independents, or from small parties. Candidates won’t be able to trade the usual political lines with each other. Instead, the debates will be more fluid and unpredictable, as independents come up with surprising and non-ideological policies.

5. Party HQs will have to allow candidates off the leash. The police commissioner posts are all about local accountability and reflecting local policing priorities. This means that candidates must be allowed to campaign on local issues, rather than parrot national ‘lines to take’. Candidates must champion their own communities, be they market towns, rural areas, inner cities, seaside towns or suburbs. It may be a hard habit to break, but party hierarchies will have to accept that candidates will fight on different manifestoes in different parts of the country. The candidates who gain traction will be the big personalities, with their own ideas: remember Ken Livingstone’s independent campaign in 2000?

The most necessary attribute for candidates will be stamina. The campaign will be shorter than a parliamentary election, but the distances are far greater. In my area, as an example, the Sussex commissioner will have to cover the estates of Brighton, the terraces of Hove, towns such as Crawley and Haywards Heath, seaside towns and harbours, rural villages and Gatwick Airport. This wide variety and distance is true in each of the 41 police constabularies across England and Wales. Only candidates to become MEPs use as much shoe leather in an election campaign.

Mayoral elections have given us Robocop, H’Angus the Monkey and Boris Johnson. This time next year we will know whether our police commissioners represent a similar all-sorts of unexpected victors, or another layer of unremarkable salaried politicians – or, as ministers hope, a new breed of civic leader.

Paul Richards is vice-chairman of Eastbourne Labour Party, and author of How to Win an Election