Will Charles Clarke take this opportunity to halt Labour's slide into authoritarianism?

There are plenty of people within the party who want its liberal tradition to rise again
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The Independent Online

Well, here's a moment to be proud of. A Home Secretary can reintroduce internment, send refugees back to tyrannies to be tortured and murdered, and recite wild lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; no problem. But sleep with a married woman and try to keep a Filipina nanny in the country? Now that's going too far.

Well, here's a moment to be proud of. A Home Secretary can reintroduce internment, send refugees back to tyrannies to be tortured and murdered, and recite wild lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; no problem. But sleep with a married woman and try to keep a Filipina nanny in the country? Now that's going too far.

I wanted David Blunkett to go, but not like this. It's like arresting Al Capone for tax evasion. Enough now with the adultery-and-visa trivia; I never want to hear Kimberly Quinn's name again. The decisions by the new Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, will change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Isn't it time we talked about them?

The tensions within New Labour's law and order policies - between liberal and authoritarian instincts - were neatly dramatised yesterday, on the very day Clarke went to the Home Office. In 1998, Labour incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. This was the greatest moment for Labour liberalism since Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary; it guaranteed every citizen a package of civil rights unprecedented in British history. Yet the same government has also blatantly contravened the ECHR. On Wednesday, the law lords had to use Labour's own legislation to attack David Blunkett's decision to kidnap nine men suspected of terrorism and jail them indefinitely, Kafka-style, in Belmarsh.

The conflict between these strands has left friction burns across the flesh of Labour's law and order policies. Often, these divisions occur within the mind of the same person. After all, even Blunkett was responsible for the most liberal gay rights legislation in British history and for ending the police harassment of cannabis users.

So how will Charles Clarke belly-flop into the ebb and flow of Labour liberalism and authoritarianism? He protests that "there will be a continuity between David's approach and mine", but he does not privately rant - in Blunkett's creepy way - "the liberati" and "the chattering classes". There is also a different set of political pressures on Clarke. Downing Street will be lobbying hard for "tough" Blunkettry in the run-up to the election. But Clarke is also eager to play to Labour Party members, who will - in four years' time at the most - be choosing a new leader.

He inherits a Home Office brimming with failing right-wing policies. Our prisons are overflowing; we have the highest proportion of the population behind bars of any country in the democratic world except for that crime-free Utopia, the United States. This means that rehabilitation and education programmes - the policies that really bring down crime - have to stumble on with precious little funding. Massive sums of money and police hours are being squandered on shoring up the "war on drugs", while other European countries are moving sensibly towards treating addicts rather than attacking them.

Sure, not every government initiative should be rejected by progressives. The crackdown on domestic violence and the rise of anti-social behaviour orders both help some of the most vulnerable people in this country. ID cards are not the tools of tyranny many people imagine. But the balance is still with Daily Mail-pleasing drivel.

This shift towards authoritarianism within the Labour Party stretches back to a strategic error when Tony Blair was shadow Home Secretary in 1992. The American political theorist, George Lakoff, has pioneered the concept of "framing". Every political issue has a frame: a language and set of assumptions that underpin any discussion. The Tory frame for law and order is to divide policies into "tough" and "soft". It's a form of language rigged in their favour - who wants to be "soft" on muggers, burglars or rapists? Hard talk can only lead one way. Once Labour politicians began to accept this right-wing frame - as Blair did in opposition - they set off on a road that led directly to stuffed jails, drug wars and internment.

The task for centre-left politicians is to change the frame. Instead of talking about policies as "tough" v "soft", the debate needs to be about "effective" v "ineffective" policies. (Or, if you want to be more populist, "smart" v "stupid"). This becomes clear if we look at concrete policies. When it comes to young offenders, the "toughest" thing to do is establish boot camps that brutalise and terrify young criminals. That's precisely what the Tories are now proposing to do. Since Labour has accepted the "toughness" frame, they have no answer. If you accept toughness as the test of your policies, why not adopt the toughest policy of all?

The new Home Secretary could try to change the frame instead. Labour could ask: Are boot camps a smart policy? Do they actually reduce crime? We know the answer from decades of academic research; boot camps turn out even more bitter young men even more determined to trash the society they live in. "Tough" is "dumb". "Soft" is "smart".

Or look at another issue: heroin. The "tough" thing to do with heroin addicts is plunge them into cold turkey in a small cell for a long time. But tough is once more dumb: this approach simply warehouses addicts and makes them more desperate when they get out. The "soft" policy is to prescribe heroin to people whose bodies have become completely dependent on it. In the areas of Switzerland where this has been piloted, burglary has fallen by an incredible 70 per cent. That's smart policy, and it would make every one of us safer.

The current obsession with macho man talk guarantees that even when smart policies are introduced, they have to be done by stealth and never publicly defended. Who knows, for example, that the massive increase in methadone prescriptions under the current government is a key factor in plumetting burglary rates?

There are plenty of people in the Labour Party who want its liberal tradition - the one that introduced the ECHR, ploughed on with gay rights and downgraded the status of cannabis - to rise again. Yet after seven years of reinforcing the right-wing frame, our politics is drifting even further out into madness. Remember last week's shoot-a-burglar mania? If there isn't a change in framing, this hysteria will only get worse.

Charles Clarke is a smart, liberal minister. It's a great sign that Blunkett believes he is "soft". So the question now is: Will he cave in to Downing Street's conservatism, or does he have the nerve to try to redefine our debate about crime?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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