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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.