How 'optimism' might start to wear thin for Labour

Amid lacklustre support and waning poll leads, the scale of the challenge for Ed Miliband is clear.

In his New Year message, released today, Ed Miliband says that his party's mission in 2012 is "to show politics can make a difference. To demonstrate that optimism can defeat despair."

Optimism might be exactly what the Labour Party needs, given the scale of the challenge they face. The Times (£) today reports that the party's much-vaunted "registered supporters" scheme has got off to a slow start. The plan, aimed at widening Labour's support base, allows people to indicate support for the party without parting with any money. Announced with great fanfare at the Labour conference in September, Miliband and Peter Hain said they were aiming for 50,000 registered supporters. So far there are only 500.

Hain has downplayed the slow start, saying that they have until the next party conference in September to achieve the target. But it is dispiriting news, particularly coming off the back of a Guardian/ICM poll earlier this week which found -- yet again -- that Labour is struggling to convince voters to trust them on the economy. Forty-four per cent of respondents rated David Cameron and George Osborne as better placed to "manage the economy properly", compared with just 23 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls. The Tory lead has doubled since ICM's October poll.

This news is hardly surprising: it reiterates the findings of more or less every poll since the election. As my colleague Rafael Behr reports in this week's New Statesman, this stasis is taking its toll on morale:

The mood among opposition MPs hovers between frustration and despair. The economy is stagnant, unemployment is rising, living standards are falling and the government's plans are a palimpsest of rewritten targets and faulty forecasts. Yet Ed Miliband still fails to land blows on the Prime Minister or persuade voters that he would do the job better. The Labour leader's defence is that the defeat of 2010 is still too recent, making it unreasonable to expect a sudden renaissance. The plan so far has been to describe what is wrong with British capitalism (it is unfair) and then assemble an alternative vision (a work in progress), ready for the moment when the voters are ready to listen.

'Establishing economic credibility' has long been the vague aim, but how exactly can this be achieved? One set of suggestions has been published today, coinciding with Miliband's New Year message.

In a pamphlet for the Policy Network think tank, the shadow pensions minister, Gregg McClymont, and the Oxford historian, Ben Jackson, argue that Labour must avoid falling into the "tax and spend" trap:

Labour can sidestep the electoral trap being sprung by the Conservatives by refusing to be driven back to its core support. A patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards, not a simple defence of the public sector and public spending, is crucial to foiling Conservative attempts to render Labour the party of a sectional minority.

Drawing on the 1930s and 1980s, both decades in which the Tories won elections despite severe economic hardship, the pamphlet argues that these successes depended on painting Labour as "profligate" and "incompetent", and being able to deliver just enough prosperity to retain support.

Writing in the Guardian, the report's authors endorse Miliband's emphasis on the "squeezed middle" and the need for a new growth model as "the right political judgement".

That may be, but "optimism" inside Labour will be running out if this judgement does not start to translate into a tangible measure of success -- increased support and stronger poll leads. The pressure is on for 2012.

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

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

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