No exit: Ed Miliband waits to enter the hall to address supporters in London on 13 November. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The choice before Labour

Ed Miliband’s big conundrum. 

The febrile events of the past week at Westminster have wounded Ed Miliband deeply but not fatally. The Labour Party is very reluctant to topple its leaders, even when it knows it is destined to lose a general election, as it was under Michael Foot in 1983 and Gordon Brown in 2010 but is not in the present circumstances. Yet so fragile is the confidence of Labour MPs and so jittery is their general mood that one issue of the New Statesman seemed to shake the very foundations of the party and precipitated a leadership crisis.

It is nonsense to suggest that the Labour leader is a victim of a conspiracy led by the right-wing press. It is true that much of the press despises him and the Labour Party; but as our political editor, George Eaton, reported in last week’s issue, many Labour MPs have lost confidence in their leader. This fuelled the feverish speculation about Guy Fawkes Night plots and mysterious letters. Had they not been briefing, there would have been no crisis.

Labour MPs accept that there is no obvious successor to Mr Miliband. Nor is there anyone waiting and willing to strike. Alan Johnson, popular and such a gifted communicator, does not seek the highest office. David Miliband has left the House of Commons and is in exile over the water in New York. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are playing a longer game. And it seems too early for the leaders of the gifted generation who entered the House in 2010 – Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves. The party accepts that it has no alternative but to fall in behind Mr Miliband and fight the election with him as the figurehead of a movement of progressive reform.

Mr Miliband is a good and honourable man but many of his MPs believe that he is floundering. Yet they also understand how vital it is that Labour wins next May’s general election. If the Tories win or were to continue in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the consequences could be lethal for the British Union and for UK membership of the European Union. The poorest would suffer most. Food banks would proliferate. The ethos of public service would be further eroded. The marketisation of our lives and society would continue apace.

The ludicrous events in the Commons over the European Arrest Warrant demonstrated again the ineptitude of David Cameron’s government. The Tories are disunited and expected to lose the Rochester and Strood by-election to the UK Independence Party on 20 November. Nigel Farage’s party has divided the right as the left was divided by the split in the Labour Party and the creation of the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s, clearing the ground for Margaret Thatcher to carry out her grand counter-revolution. Support for the Liberal Democrats has collapsed. However, in such propitious circumstances, Labour is going backwards. In its northern English heartlands and in Scotland, many of its core supporters are giving up on the party. Or they are simply refusing to vote. Many progressives now prefer the Greens, with their robust anti-austerity message.

Mr Farage, the Ukip leader, in his interview with Jason Cowley on page 22, says: “Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe . . . Increasingly what we’re finding is the people that come from the Labour side . . . don’t think anyone’s on their side.”

Mr Miliband challenged and defeated his elder brother, David, for the leadership because he believed only he could effect the change that Britain needed. He is nothing if not resilient and has that little chip of ice in the heart that characterises all politicians of serious ambition. Indeed, it is a sense of destiny that sustains him even now, in his darkest hours, as many despair of him.

Yet he cannot continue to bear so much of the burden alone. Labour needs to harness the talents and skills of its frontbenchers, including the admirable Jon Cruddas, Mr Burnham, Mr Umunna and Ms Cooper, as part of a more inclusive, team-based approach. In contrast to the Tories, who have failed to shed their image as the party of the rich, Labour’s brand remains strong and polls show that its progressive policies – higher NHS spending, wealth taxes, mass housebuilding and an increased minimum wage – have broad appeal.

Having lost so much ground in spite of this, the party needs urgently to improve if it is to convince voters that it represents a credible alternative government. A defeat to an administration that has combined incompetence with callousness like few others is one that its supporters cannot afford and would not forgive. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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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