Why has Clegg told millions not to vote for the Lib Dems?

The Lib Dem leader's decision to abandon any attempt to win over left-wing voters is bizarre.

ConservativeHome's Peter Hoskin has written a fine post on why the right should stick up for Nick Clegg, which equally functions as a demonstration of why the left should not (unless, as Lenin put it, we support him "as the rope supports a hanged man"). Hoskin notes Clegg's early support for austerity (he pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate the deficit through spending cuts alone, a stance that put him to the right of George Osborne) and his opposition to universal benefits for the elderly. Even when the Lib Dems were still officially opposed to immediate spending cuts and to higher tuition fees, it was clear that Clegg's heart wasn't in it (he simply accepted that his leftish party would not accept a change of policy ). Under the cover of coalition government, he has emerged as the right-leaning politician he always was.

The coverage of his comeback interview with the Guardian inevitably focused on his call for a new wealth tax, but as notable was the contempt he showed for left-wing voters. He told the paper:

Frankly, there are a group of people who don't like any government in power and are always going to shout betrayal. We have lost them and they are not going to come back by 2015. Our job is not to look mournfully in the rear view mirror and hope that somehow we will claw them back. Some of them basically seem to regard Liberal Democrats in coalition as a mortal sin.

Clegg's resigned tone ("they are not going to come back by 2015") is extraordinary. Psephologically speaking, he's almost certainly right, but since when has a politician willfully abandoned so many voters? Rather than traducing the millions who have turned against the Lib Dems (in an interview with the Guardian, of all places), shouldn't he be trying to "claw them back"? When he declares that it's not his "job" to do so, one is tempted to reply, "actually, it is".

At the very least, Clegg could highlight some of the leftish policies the coalition has pursued (a 35% increase in international development spending, a ring-fenced NHS budget, an increase in capital gains tax). But when it comes to voters, the Lib Dem leader appers to value quality over quantity. Like Kurt Cobain, he would rather be hated for who he is, than loved for who he's not.

There is something admirable about such political purity but his MPs, looking nervously at their party's disastrous poll ratings (they are averaging around 10 per cent), will surely question his judgement.

Nick Clegg said left-wing voters were "not going to come back by 2015". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of 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