Starmer and the futile ‘war on drugs’

Published by The i paper (10th January, 2022)

Wes Streeting, the shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, offered intriguing insights into the latest model of the Labour Party. He said he would not “shirk” use of private providers to cut hospital waiting lists, then danced his way through the transgender debate by demanding more empathy on both sides. He argued we should respect veteran women’s rights campaigners and not seek to change language such as ‘breastfeeding’ but also avoid ‘dehumanising’ attacks while addressing deep concerns of the trans community.

This showed how Sir Keir Starmer seeks to present his party: sensible and sober, sounding forceful and strong, seeking to seduce as wide a slice of the electorate as possible while avoiding taking a strong stance on controversial issues. Labour is being remoulded to reflect its leader, who offers sharp personal contrast to a sleazy, shambolic and self-serving Tory prime minister. And the strategy seems to be working to some extent since both party and leader have a decent lead in the polls.

Starmer deserves some praise for jettisoning the toxic baggage of his predecessor and strengthening the Shadow Cabinet to look like a possible government in waiting. Defence spokesman John Healey just published a ‘Dossier of Waste’ accusing the Government of blowing £13bn on bungled military procurement since 2010, a sign it has rediscovered the merit of forensic opposition demonstrated so ably by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the dog days of another divided Tory government.

Yet questions remain over Starmer’s caution and his relentless focus on recapturing red wall voters who deserted Labour for Boris Johnson. Guided by Blairite advisers and focus groups, Starmer carefully wraps himself in the flag, avoids fierce criticism of the Brexit fiasco and focuses on crime. He underlined this approach with a keynote speech last week on security and respect, promising “visible” police hubs and a “tough new approach to closing down drug dens.”

We have seen before how this approach works with a Labour government. Blair and Brown put one new offence on the statute book for every day in office over 13 years, demonstrating the disastrous impact of criminal justice policies based on headlines. They ramped up prison populations but did little to drive down recidivism. One key cause of both crime and over-flowing prisons is the failure to tackle often-entwined issues of addiction and mental health. Instead, there is still reliance on the corrosive war on drugs when cannabis, spice and heroin cannot even be kept out of high-security prisons – or indeed, cocaine from the Palace of Westminster.

This self-harming approach has led to a dismal double whammy: Britain has the highest prison population and the worst rates of drug-related deaths in western Europe. All the fatalities and wasted lives behind bars are a damning indictment of Westminster’s persistent failure. Politicians push the idea that use of drugs they deem illicit should be punished, peddling a fantasy that they can stifle the flows of heroin, cocaine and cannabis rather than focusing on harm reduction and regulation. So they talk of being tough – then limply hand control of lucrative drug markets to the world’s most violent gangsters while ignoring safety concerns and doing far too little to fight the torment of addiction.

This was the New Labour approach, this is the Tory approach and sadly, this seems to be Starmer’s approach – although he must know full well the futility of the drug war as a former director of public prosecutions. Last week, asked about a trial ‘diversion’ scheme in London to educate rather than prosecute young cannabis users, he responded that he “does not believe in changing drug laws and does not support decriminalisation”. Yet his Shadow Cabinet includes several leading Labour proponents of precisely such reform, while he stated in the leadership election that he supports schemes that do not prosecute for cannabis possession.

Behind this hypocrisy lies fear of criticism he might be “soft” on crime or drugs. He is not alone: ministers also seek glib headlines with silly comments about crackdowns on middle-class cocaine users. Both sides suffer from a patronising delusion that red wall voters are more socially conservative than other citizens although polling even on transgender issues shows minimal divergence. Meanwhile, the legacy of Westminster’s irresponsibility on drugs was exposed again as Starmer delivered his speech. An inquest in Bournemouth heard about a 16-year-old girl who died after taking ecstasy when her friends delayed calling an ambulance for two hours since they ‘didn’t want to get into trouble’. This led to irreversible brain damage and another family left devastated by a needlessly destroyed life.

A government review admitted enforcement has “little impact on availability” but “potential unintended consequences… such as violence related to drug markets”. Polling has shown more than three-quarters of voters believe threats of criminal sanctions to be ineffective at deterring drug users. Even some socially conservative Tories admit privately prohibition does not work. Little wonder police forces from Scotland to Somerset, frustrated by wasting scarce resources on people with addiction issues or harmless casual users, are ignoring the political stasis and introducing diversion schemes. The role model is Portugal, which proved it is far more effective to focus on public health than punishment. Now many more nations from Canada to Israel, Italy, South Africa and Uruguay are introducing drug reforms.

Look at Germany where Labour’s soulmates just won power promising to legalise cannabis. Starmer needs to find issues to define his leadership rather than simply hoping that he slinks into Downing Street as the antidote to Johnson’s poisonous populism and one is staring him in the face. If he wants to prove that he is patriotic, tough on crime and cares about struggling communities, Starmer should challenge the corrosive war on drugs. This is real modernisation – not simply dusting off Blair’s dire playbook of crime and falling into the Westminster stupefaction on drugs.

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