Miliband's conference speech: what the papers say

What the commentators have to say about the Labour leader's speech in Liverpool yesterday.

Guardian

Jonathan Freedland says that the content of Miliband's speech was spot on, but that it doesn't matter because the public think he is "weird".

Ed Miliband did what the professional speechwriters always say you should do. He presented an argument, rather than a laundry list. He did not dole out random policy nuggets, with a bit on foreign policy thrown in, in order to touch every base. Instead he made a case, arguing that the values cherished by British society are not reflected in the ethics that underpin our economy.

. . .

Put simply, my fear is that you can make all the speeches and policy statements you like - carefully devising a strategy on this and crafting a narrative on that - but what matters more are shallow considerations of looks, demeanour, speech patterns and biography. That, in short, it is personality, not policy, that counts.

Times

Daniel Finkelstein (£) agrees that one of Miliband's main problems is the public's initial reaction to him -- drawing a comparison to William Hague -- but adds that he is too left-wing.

Instant reaction to Ed Miliband may not be fair (I don't think it is) but it is very powerful. Shown clips of the Labour leader, focus groups members start shaking their heads and saying "no". When asked what they think about having him as prime minister, they often laugh.

. . .

I don't believe that Mr Miliband is very left-wing, just that he is a tiny bit too left-wing. A leader can't fake his basic politics . . . He is reasonable and moderate, but he is also firmly a social democrat, steeped in the writings of the Left, accepting much of its analysis and regarding equality as his priority. And so, inevitably, he will shift the party to the left. That's what he did in his speech. . . Elections are won on the centre ground, and the centre ground is where it is, not where you want it to be.

Independent

Yes, Miliband did move to the left in this speech, says Steve Richards -- but this was a brave move. Its success depends on whether he can match it with concrete policy suggestions.

His speech had similarities with the one made by Cameron early in his leadership in which he set out why he was an optimist, wanting to let the sun shine through. I recall writing against virtually every paragraph of that address a one word question: How? Miliband's speech was similarly light on policy. What form would his more active state take? The biggest challenge always in politics is to link values with precise policy commitments that have broad appeal. In identifying the ending of the old lightly regulated era, Miliband moves with the tide of history, a break at least as big as the collapse of the old corporatist consensus in the late-1970s. That is the easy bit. Coming up with policies that unite his party and appeal to voters is much more challenging.

Telegraph

Predictably, the Telegraph does not find much to comment in Miliband's speech. An editorial argues that his ideas were wrong (except where he praised Margaret Thatcher) and that he missed an opportunity to rethink the centre-left.

Overall, Mr Miliband's demand for a new morality in public life has an alarmingly authoritarian edge. In the one rather startling outburst of honesty, he praised the Thatcher reforms of the Eighties - the sale of council houses, the deep cuts in tax rates, the new trade union laws - but then asserted that these reforms were often "based on the wrong values". That is sheer sophistry.

. . .

In truth, yesterday represented a retreat into the comfort zone: the loud boos that greeted the mention of Tony Blair - Labour's most successful leader by far - showed that clearly enough. Mr Miliband had the opportunity to show that he is bringing fresh and radical thinking to the centre-Left. He flunked it.

Financial Times

John Kay identifies a broader challenge facing the left, which Miliband must tackle if he wants to regain office:

Few voters were ever much interested in the old rhetoric of socialism, and they have equally little interest in the new rhetoric of rights. Support forsocial security is based not on recognition of claims to entitlement but on considerations of solidarity, sympathy and desert - there but for the grace of God go I.

. . .

So there is a division within parties of the left between those who cherish human rights, multi-culturalism and the environment, and the majority of their supporters.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity