Is Cameron trying to buy the election?

Labour should check the figures before it adopts this line

It must count as some achievement to simultaneously attract the ire of Jack Straw and Simon Heffer. That's the position in which David Cameron finds himself this morning, with both, to varying degrees, accusing the Tory leader of attempting to buy the election.

Here's Straw:

At the same time that Mr Cameron tells the British people we face "austerity", he has ordered his party to fight the most expensive election campaign in British political history. It is an American-style campaign, costing millions, with wealthy suitors each paying £50,000 to join David Cameron's dining club, and British high streets covered with billboards bankrolled ultimately from Belize. Mr Cameron says the Conservatives have changed, but what we are seeing is an attempt by his party to buy the next general election.

And here's the Heff:

I am told that the budget for the forthcoming campaign has been agreed, and it will be £18m. How does that resonate with a country in the grip of austerity? What does it suggest about the party's understanding of the value of money? What if a second campaign had to be funded later in 2010? Given the circumstances, would a little more restraint not have been in order? Given, also, the very obvious mess that the government has made of the country, is it really going to take £18m to put that message across?

Should the Tories have amassed an £18m election war chest, it will be the most expensive campaign this country has seen. But not by much. At the 2005 election Labour spent a record £17,939,617 -- £87,000 more than the Tories' £17,852,240.

If Labour is to criticise Cameron with any credibility, it will have to run a fairly lean campaign itself. Given the state of the party's finances, it may be forced to do so.

Whether this line of attack will prove effective either way is doubtful. Next to the £850bn bank bailout and the £187bn deficit, £18m will appear a piffling sum to the voters. Attacking the size of the Tories' campaign budget may even prove a distraction from the related but separate issue of Lord Ashcroft's tax status.

In order to portray the Tory showing as insensitive and profligate, Gordon Brown would have to run a John Major-style soapbox campaign. Such an approach would complement Brown's hairshirt image and could even give Labour a chance to resurrect the effective slogan "Not flash, just Gordon". I'd be surprised if Labour strategists weren't considering this approach for the election.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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