Labour's new campaign leaflet Photograph: Labour party
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And you think those anti-immigration mugs were bad? Labour's 'appalling gutter politics' on drugs

Labour now prioritises crude electioneering over reforming drug policy to save lives. 

Labour has attracted a lot of scorn for its already notorious “Controls on immigration. I’m voting Labour” mug. If this can be accused of pandering to prejudice, the party’s new campaign leaflet is much, much worse.

As the Guardian reports, Labour has found a new line of attack against the Liberal Democrats: soft on drugs. Labour says Nick Clegg’s party “would end prison sentences for drug possession – even for the hardest drugs like heroin and crack” - a reference to the Lib Dems’ pledge to relax sentencing on those who possess drugs only for personal use.

It is just possible that the leaflet might swing some seats to Labour – though young people, a key group who Labour are banking on to defect from the Lib Dems, are unlikely to be very impressed. But it threatens to have disastrous consequences for drugs policy in the UK.

The War On Drugs has a legitimate claim to being the single greatest public policy mistake in the 20th Century. If America provides the most extreme example of its lunacy – thanks to the War on Drugs, the US penal population has increased sixfold since 1972, and an American is 50% more likely to be behind bars than a Russian – it is also detectable in the UK.

In 2013, 2,955 people died from drug poisoning, despite more than £3bn being spent on tackling drug use. Poorest areas are the most affected: in the North East of England, the poorest region of the UK, the drug mortality rate is over twice as high as in London.

Drugs need not exert so much devastation. Since Portugal decriminalised the possession of drugs in 2001, the number of drug-related deaths has fallen from 80 to 16; today, someone is 20 times as likely to die from drugs in the UK as in Portugal.

Belatedly, the destructive consensus around the War on Drugs might be fragmenting. Last year, a non-binding vote in the House of Commons advocated rethinking the UK’s drug laws. And – even more significantly – the Home Office produced a report on what works in drug policy. It reaffirmed what drug campaigners already knew: that harsh sentencing does not lead to reduced use of drugs.

And, despite the support of David Cameron and Theresa May for the War on Drugs, government policy on drugs has improved this Parliament. “The coalition government’s policy of focusing very much on recovery, is to be applauded, and I’ve seen the benefit of that locally,” Chief Constable Mike Barton, the leading police critic of drugs policy, told me in December.

But all these signs of hope in UK drug policy now risk being jeopardised. Out of shameless political expediency, Labour are depicting personal drug users as criminals rather than addicts who need help.

Campaigners for a more evidence-based drug policy are horrified. “It’s a classic and appalling example of gutter politics,” says Martin Jelsma, Director of the drugs policy programme of the Transnational Institute. “Accusing the Lib Dems of being ‘soft on drugs and thugs’ is a cheap populist slogan that tries to hide the Labour Party's own co-responsibility for destroying the future of thousands of people by giving them a criminal record for no good reason at all.

"The world is moving fast away from this overly repressive and counterproductive drug control approach, but apparently Labour rather wants to side with the likes of Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia that keep defending the criminalisation of drug users. Most social-democratic parties in Europe are way ahead of Labour on this issue.”

It is a damning indictment of Labour’s approach on drugs and beyond. As with immigration, Labour has abandoned fighting for the progressive values that Ed Miliband was meant to embody. Labour now prioritises crude electioneering over reforming drug policy to save lives. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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