Leader: Ed Miliband has shown leadership and courage

With a mixture of high-minded principle and political cunning, he has reimagined the Labour-unions link for a less collectivist age.

The art of political leadership lies in turning crisis into advantage and misfortune into gain. In his deft response to the Labour parliamentary selection scandal in Falkirk, Ed Miliband succeeded in doing both. It was not a fight he chose. Ever since his election in 2010, the Labour leader had resisted defining himself against his own party, shunning tiresome demands for a “Clause Four moment” and prizing unity above all else. But confronted by the imperial ambitions of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, and the insistent question “Who runs Labour?”, he has taken a path more radical than any of his recent predecessors.

His plan to require trade union members to opt in to donating to the party, rather than being automatically enrolled by general secretaries, would be the most significant change to the Labour-unions relationship since the party’s formation in 1900. If Mr Miliband’s support for democracy and transparency is to be consistent, it is also an entirely necessary one.

At present, of the 15 unions affiliated to Labour, only Unison allows new members to choose whether or not they contribute to the party when they sign up. Just two others, the Musicians’ Union and Usdaw, mention the existence of a political fund (but do not mention Labour) and six affiliated unions, including Unite and the GMB, do not mention Labour at all in the membership sections of their websites. As a result, even though all members have the formal right to opt out of paying the levy, just 10 per cent do so in practice, and many are not even aware of the fund’s existence. It is this arrangement that allows the Conservatives to argue, with some justification, that unions such as Unite (just 37.5 per cent of whose members vote Labour) dupe workers into subsidising the Labour Party.

By turning his back on such machine politics and declaring that no individual will donate to the party “unless they have deliberately chosen to do so”, Mr Miliband has confronted this charge head-on. No longer will Labour and the unions’ relationship be defined by backroom meetings between the leader and his or her representatives and the general secretaries. Instead, Mr Miliband will reach out to the three million workers who now pay the political levy and seek to rebuild Labour as a mass-membership party. At a time of corrosive cynicism with politics, his vision of a party “truly rooted in every community and every walk of life”, a party of “shopworkers, nurses, engineers, bus drivers, construction workers, people from the public and private sector”, is an inspiring one.

Comparisons with Tony Blair’s decision to rewrite Clause Four understate the boldness of the move. Mr Blair’s revision of that hallowed section of Labour’s constitution, which committed the party to “col - lective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, was of largely symbolic significance. The party had long abandoned its support for wholesale nationalisation. By contrast, the reforms announced by Mr Miliband on 9 July will have profound consequences for Labour. Party officials privately estimate that the introduction of an opt-in system would result in the loss of at least £5m of the £8m it currently receives each year in union affiliation fees. For a party with existing debts of £9.9m – more than every other party put together – the act is almost masochistic.

Worse, should relatively few trade unionists choose to join the party, it will be hard for the unions to justify remaining affiliated at all. The events set in motion by Mr Miliband could lead to the severing of all ties between Labour and its founders. It is the immensity of this gamble that prompted the rare praise for Mr Miliband from Mr Blair, who declared: “This is big stuff and it takes a real act of leadership to do it.”

If the risks are great, then so, too, are the potential rewards. Having abandoned his previous opposition to the introduction of an opt-in system, at potentially great cost to his party, he has earned the right to challenge the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to reopen the stalled talks on party funding. Should the Tories continue to resist his proposal of a cap of £5,000 on all donations, he will be able to present them as a party too much in hock to vested interests to reform a system that verges on corruption. The Conservatives will insist that Mr Miliband’s position contradicts past statements and that he has acted under duress. That still leaves unanswered the question of how they will respond now.

The Labour leader showed similar astuteness in calling for a limit on MPs’ outside earnings, as we did in a leader last week. He was right to recognise the public disdain for those whose second jobs often pay “higher salaries than the job of an MP itself”. As we argued, restrictions on outside earnings would also make it easier to justify any future increase in MPs’ pay. The Conservatives’ decision to respond by describing Mr Miliband’s proposal as a “smokescreen” represented a profound misreading of the public mood. As in the case of big-money donations, David Cameron has exposed himself to the charge he is defending the interests of his own side. In the 2012-2013 parliamentary session, Tory MPs declared more than £4.3m in earnings from outside directorships or jobs, compared to £2.4m by their Labour counterparts, £1.37m of which was accounted for by Gordon Brown, who did not personally benefit from any of the money.

Mr Miliband’s promise to introduce a new code of conduct for those seeking parliamentary selection, a cap on spending by candidates and organisations operating on their behalf (including trade unions) and standard constituency agreements with the unions so that no one can be subjected to undue local pressure was the minimum required to restore trust in the selection process after the Falkirk debacle.

Far bolder was his announcement that primaries will be held to select Labour’s 2016 London mayoral candidate and to choose parliamentary candidates in seats where the local party has few members or, in effect, is moribund. While seeking to recruit as many members as possible to Labour, he is also right to recognise the need to engage with those who will never be persuaded to join by allowing them to register as supporters and vote in selection contests.

Faced with his biggest crisis as leader, Mr Miliband demonstrated the ambition and idealism that were the most attractive features of his campaign in 2010. With a mixture of high-minded principle and political cunning, he has reimagined the Labour-unions link for a less collectivist age.

This past week, Mr Cameron derided him as “too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country”. The reverse may now apply. If Mr Miliband can sustain the moral courage and the stamina that will be required in order to transform his party into something that looks more like a mass movement for economic and social change, he will have proved his credentials to serve as the nation’s prime minister.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour-trade union link at The St Bridge Foundation in London yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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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