What will Labour's "policy goodies" be?

Policies likely to be announced before the election include building a million affordable homes, scrapping the bedroom tax and creating living wage zones.

With the return of growth to the economy after three years of stagnation, Labour has smartly moved on to attacking the coalition over the "cost of living crisis". Wages are unlikely to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest, leaving the average earner £6,660 worse off. But if Labour is to win the election, it won't be enough to convince voters that they're poorer under the Tories. It will also need to convince them that they'd be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous line - "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" - but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could do any better. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015. 

It's for this reason that party activists and backbenchers are so desperate for Ed Miliband to fill the policy vacuum. Labour's recent briefing David Cameron's out of touch, you're out of pockets promised measures including the reintroduction of a 10p tax rate, stricter caps on rail fares and a new energy watchdog with the power to force suppliers to pass on price cuts when the cost of wholesale energy falls. But while all worthy moves, such Brownite incrementalism is unlikely to have voters rushing to the polling booths. 

It was in an attempt to reassure the troops, then, that Chris Leslie, the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury (who has been acting as Ed Balls's deputy while Rachel Reeves has been on maternity leave), promised that the party would unveil a series of "policy goodies" in the months ahead. But what could they be? Here are some possible candidates. 

A million affordable homes

All three parties have identified housing as one of the defining issues of the moment but while the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address the fundamental problem of supply. Labour has already said that it would bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and in 2015 it is likely to pledge to build a million over five years, a level closer to that required to meet need. In part, this could be achieved by removing the cap on councils' borrowing, a move that Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have been pushing for but which George Osborne has consistently rejected. 

As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and appeals to aspirational voters. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing ( for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. And it offers a powerful dividing line with the Conservatives. 

Scrapping the bedroom tax

The bedroom tax, which reduces housing benefit by 14% for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25% for those with two or more, has become the most potent symbol of the unfairness of the government's cuts. 

While Miliband has consistently refused to pledge to repeal it, I'm told by a source close to the Labour leader that the party will promise to do so in 2015 as part of its "one nation" approach to welfare. 

Creating living wage zones

Miliband was quicker than most to recognise that the minimum wage is not enough to guarantee an adequate standard of living and that tax credits are an inefficient means of making up the difference. In response, he has consistently spoken of his ambition to dramatically expand use of the living wage. 

While the party will not introduce a compulsory version, as many activists would wish, it will take significant steps to increase its use in the private and public sector. This is likely to include making it compulsory for all government departments and contractors to pay the living wage and establishing "living wage zones". As outlined by the Resolution Foundation and the IPPR, the zones would operate by transferring some of the savings received by the Treasury through the payment of the living wage (lower benefit payments and higher tax revenues) to local authorities to help them work with businesses to increase wages to living wage levels. 

A jobs guarantee for anyone unemployed for more than a year

In response to the distressingly high level of long-term unemployment (which rose again in the most recent quarter to 909,000), Labour has promised to introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for all adults unemployed for 24 months or more (and for all young people unemployed for six months or more). Ahead of the election, it's possible that it will announce a lower limit of 18 or 12 months. 

Free universal childcare for pre-school children

Miliband has long admired the example of the Nordic countries, where free universal childcare is credited with enabling high levels of female employment and Labour is likely to unveil a similar policy in 2015. This won't be cheap, but the party can make a hard-headed economic case for reform based on the finding that for every woman who returns to full-time employment after a year of maternity leave, the government receives a net benefit of £20,050 (over four years). 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of 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