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.

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.