Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Blair launches DNA election

Back in February, Guy Aitchison noted that Labour seemed bent on making its illegal DNA-retention policy an election issue. This is the Home Office proposal to retain DNA profiles of anyone arrested by the police, even if they turn out to be entirely innocent, for six years. Not only does this treat anyone who has come into contact with the police (demonstrators, black people, Tory immigration spokesmen...) as a potential murderer or rapist, it happily - in the Eady sense - violates the principles laid down by the European Court of Human Rights. It has no good basis in evidence, is wasteful of resources, is disproportionate and discriminatory. Labour strategists, however, think it's an easy sell on the doorsteps, on the assumption that most voters share the police's view that there's no such thing as an innocent arrestee, merely someone who is yet to be convicted of an offence.

Guy wrote:

That the Labour party should so loudly trumpet its contempt for personal privacy and the presumption of innocence, parading its violation of the European Court on Human Rights ruling on DNA retention as one of the top six reasons to vote for it, tells you everything you need to know about its attitude to civil liberties and the rule of law.

At the beginning of this month, Gordon Brown made a speech in Reading in which he claimed that under Tory proposals "some sickening crimes would have gone unsolved, and many dangerous criminals would have remained at large." A few days ago Alan Johnson decided to ditch a potential compromise on the issue so he could make hay with it during the campaign. Now, here comes the resurrected Tony Blair to warn voters that the Conservatives have "gone liberal when actually they should have stuck with a traditional Conservative position." It's the clearest sign yet that Labour wants to make law and order - and especially DNA retention - a big issue.

As proof of Conservative folly Blair cites their willingness to adopt a system approved by the ECHR and which seems to be working well in Scotland.

On law and order the Tories have opposed the stronger anti-terrorism measures and much of the anti-social behaviour agenda. They even want to restrict the use of the DNA database. This employs the advanced technology of DNA tracking and matching, to provide incontrovertible evidence of guilt or innocence. Its use so far has resulted in extraordinary breakthroughs. Old crimes, whose victims or their families never received justice, can be solved and perpetrators brought to book. Innocent people have been freed. As the database builds up, it becomes an invaluable crime fighting tool. In time, it will also be a fierce deterrent, since criminals particularly murderers, rapists and those who commit violent assault, will know they run a big risk of detection. It is an absolutely sensible use of modern technology. It can actually help prevent abuses of civil liberties. Yet the Tories oppose it.

Of course, Tony Blair has never yet seen a civil liberty he didn't want to destroy. He's the man who brought us, among other highlights of his years in office, the Identity database, restrictions on trial by jury, the ban on protests in Westminster, youth curfews, the attempt (narrowly defeated by Labour backbenchers who had finally been pushed too far) to introduce ninety days pre-charge detention, Section 44 harassment of photographers, university researchers arrested as terrorists for downloading material from the US government website, a blind eye towards torture by friendly states, children imprisoned in immigration centres, environmental protestors redefined as "domestic extremists" and a permanent state of emergency. So it would be unfair to accuse him of a lack of consistency.

His comments are the usual mix of the tendentious, the emotionally rigged and the downright dishonest. The Conservatives don't want to restrict the use of the DNA database, merely its scope. Adding new samples to a semi-permanent database has no effect on "old crimes", since samples will still be taken on arrest and may be compared against cold cases. Profiles taken from "murderers, rapists and those who commit violent assault" will remain indefinitely on file, of course. And it's hard to know what he means by claiming that expanding the database to include ever more innocent people "can actually help prevent abuses of civil liberties". Perhaps he's referring to DNA's usefulness in eliminating potential suspects from a crime scene. But that, of course, has nothing whatever to do with the database.

Blair seems to think that anyone who objects to ever more draconian police powers and restrictions on traditional liberty wants murderers and rapists to escape justice. But to treat an ever larger proportion of the population as suspects who have yet to be convicted will no nothing to convict rapists and murderers. The logic of Blair's belief that the database is a "fierce deterrent" is that everyone in the country should have their DNA placed for their whole lives in the care of the police. That way, no-one would ever escape conviction for any crime - assuming, as Blair does, that DNA evidence is infallible. Which, of course, it isn't.

The version of DNA redtention preferred by the Conservatives would still yield the largest such database in Europe, by the way, so it hardly qualifies as excessively liberal. And it is the system preferred by Sir Alec Jeffreys, the man who invented DNA profiling. "Yet the Tories support it," wonders the sainted Tone. It's hardly puzzling that the Conservatives support it, if one imagines, or at least hopes, that policy should be based on evidence, logic and proportionality rather than macho posturing. It is, however, strange that the Tories should support it if you're as cynical about the business of politics as Tony Blair has always been, for all his Messianic posturing and unwavering belief in his own rectitude.

Two things emerge from Labour's determination to attack the Conservatives for "going liberal". First, it reveals (as if we didn't know already) the depths of Labour's cynicism on "law and order". Ever since Tony Blair launched his first memorable soundbite, "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", New Labour has positioned itself, wherever possible, to the authoritarian right of the Conservatives. This was purely, nakedly, for perceived electoral gain. If capital punishment hadn't been abolished in the 1960s, Tony Blair would be boasting today about how many more people had been executed by his government than under the soft, criminal-loving Tories. I can almost hear him.

Yet even hardline Tories have always recognised that getting tough on criminals doesn't entail criminalising the entire population, and that the police must retain the trust of the law-abiding majority. Labour has combined traditionally right-wing law and order rhetoric with its centralising, statist tendency to suspect and monitor everyone - in the process creating a new crime for almost every day it has been in office.

The other striking thing is how easy it is for Tony Blair to make strident and ill-argued remarks and how much effort it takes to refute them. The soundbite world of election campaigns encourages superficially plausible, emotionally manipulative nonsense like this. It's extraordinary how potent cheap arguments are.

New Labour remains convinced that the electorate responds in a Pavlovian fashion to "tough" law and order messages, however illiberal, however alien to British traditions of privacy and innocent-until-proven-guilty, however little based in evidence. The Tories, for their part, deserve credit for preferring rational policies to the supposedly crowd-pleasing authoritarianism of their opponents.