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: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation