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Frank Manning: Should Ed Miliband be using the terminally ill and victims of serious crimes to score political points at PMQs?

Picture 17 Frank Manning is a researcher at Big Brother Watch, the campaign for civil liberties and online privacy. He tweets at @billymanning.

On Wednesday, Ed Miliband again utilised his morally contentious plan of using highly emotive topics to improve his lacklustre Prime Minister’s Questions performances. After using cancer patients to make a point about benefits last week, he chose the sensitive subject of rape to bring up the topic of the national DNA database.

Yet Miliband has spent more than a year trying to declare himself a staunch supporter of civil liberties and distance himself from the intrusive style of government of the Labour Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It is worth remembering that if Labour had won the last election, we would currently all be enjoying our new hideously expensive ID Cards, while there is a strong possibility they would have attempted to extend the limit for detention without charge to 42 days once again.

The one thing this tactic does prove is that Miliband is not quite finished yet. After watching their leader get taken to the cleaners week after week by the professional approach which Cameron brings to the dispatch box, someone in his team realised a different approach was necessary. By bringing up emotive, sensitive topics Miliband forces Cameron to change tack, removing his ability to make jokes and mock him. It seems unlikely the Prime Minister will allow himself to be ambushed like this for a third time.

Labour can probably thank the Today programme on Radio 4 for their leader’s relative success in the last two PMQs. The speed with which Ken Clarke’s discussion about sentencing on the radio show descended into a catastrophe showed how dangerous sensitive subjects can be during the various reforms the Coalition are attempting to implement. The policy itself, whatever your thoughts on sentencing, was barely controversial. The pre-existing policy, established by the previous Labour government, discounted sentences by a third if the defendant pleaded guilty during the trial.

The Conservative Party intended on extending this to half the sentence, but with one very important caveat: the defendant would have to plead guilty before the trial. While it was not specifically designed for rape cases, one of the primary reasons for it was very relevant. Victims would never be subject to the horrifying pressures of months in court in close proximity to their attacker while still being unsure whether they would be found guilty.

After a poor choice of words from Ken Clarke and a succession of additional disastrous interviews, Miliband was handed all the ammunition he could ask for during PMQs. Subsequently the policy was thrown into disarray and severe pressure from The Sun and the Daily Mail forced Cameron and Clarke into a radical change in policy.

Miliband may have considered this a victory but it will have alienated a large part of the Labour Party along with many disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters who have never subscribed to the tough sentencing approach to law and order which now looks very likely to be implemented. In addition, the saving from public funds which could have been achieved with the reforms must now be found elsewhere. These reforms also benefited from the fact that they would have required few redundancies in the Justice Department.

On Wednesday, Ed Miliband chose to return to the topic of rape. It followed the same formula. A quote from a group which has an obvious vested interest in the subject was used to apply pressure on Cameron. Groups in support of rape victims such as Rape Crisis will always support increases in the DNA database. Many may even support a national database containing the DNA of every British citizen, but this does not make it morally right. The concept of innocent until proven guilty must remain, but the current system is grossly unfair.

People who have never been convicted of a crime should not suffer the ignominy of having their DNA taken, whereas those who are convicted of serious crimes have forfeited their liberty and therefore create a justification for retaining their DNA as a precaution against them committing further crimes in the future. There is a case for police to keep the DNA of unconvicted people in certain serious cases, for example if a case has collapsed due to a technicality rather than a lack of evidence, but this must be strictly monitored and justified in each case.

Political commentators of all persuasions have commented on the success of Miliband's recent approach, but the majority are questioning the morality involved in using the terminally ill and victims of serious crimes to score points over the dispatch box. However, he currently has no other ideas and few options. With no established policies to offer or concrete plans for public sector cuts, Labour must resort to ill-conceived ideas such as the un-funded VAT cut, announced in public by Ed Balls before party members were briefed about it. Indeed, rumours abound that many in the Labour Party are quietly seething at being expected to support the VAT idea publicly when they were never even informed or consulted about it beforehand.

Miliband has also been attempting to steer clear of commenting on the upcoming strikes in the public sector due to his precarious position. The unions which placed him in his current job expect full support from the opposition leader, but he knows outright declarations of support would risk infuriating the majority of people who don’t believe the public sector should be insulated from the recession which has already affected almost everyone in the private sector.

PMQs next week will offer up an interesting spectacle. Cameron cannot allow himself to be defeated on points for a third week running, while Miliband has the option of picking yet another emotive topic to trip his opponent up or changing tactics entirely.  It remains to be seen whether the public and media will allow him to continue opting for point scoring as an alternative to policies and a cohesive economic strategy.


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