Labour's opportunistic campaign poster
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The Conservatives and Labour are both wedded to the failed War on Drugs

On drug policy, mindless tub-thumping trumps trumps what actually works. 

In the US presidential debate of the excluded three years ago, the Green Party, Justice Party, Libertarian Party and Conservative Party, four entities from right across the political spectrum, were united in denouncing the lunacy of the War on Drugs. Meanwhile Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, divided by far less ideologically, remained wedded to the status quo. It encapsulated a depressing truth about drugs policy in the western world. Advocating reform is a favourite of fringe and retired politicians and police officers. Those in power are lamentably reticent.

So it is in the UK. Last year promised to bring a sea change in the UK's self-destructive approach to the War on Drugs. A non-binding vote in the House of Commons advocated rethinking drug laws and - against Theresa May's wishes - the Home Office produced a report on what works in drug policy. It confirmed what we already knew: harsh sentencing does not lead to reduced use of drugs and, by stigmatising drug users, is actually counter-productive.

But it is a lesson that the main parties appear not to want to learn. While the Lib Dems and Greens advocate fundamental change in the UK's approach to drug policy - both parties want to transfer drug policy from the Department of Health to the Home Office, and the Lib Dems want to borrow from the successful Portuguese model, and decriminalise possession of all drugs for personal use - the bad news is that the Conservatives and Labour seem to remain wedded to the failed status quo on drugs.

Blind to the findings of the Home Office's report, David Cameron claimed that existing drug policy is "working". The fact that someone is 20 times more likely to die from drugs in the UK as in Portugal, where drug possession was decriminalised in 2001, tells a very different story. But the Conservative manifesto ignores all these lessons, advocating doubling down on failed drug policies that treat personal drug users as criminals rather than addicts. Abstinence would be kept as the goal of drug treatment, and substitute drugs to wean addicts off the most dangerous ones would not be countenanced.

Ostensibly Labour's approach seems less cackhanded. The manifesto advocates a greater emphasis on drug treatment and less on punishing users. "We will ensure drug treatment services focus on the root causes of addiction, with proper integration between health, police and local authorities in the commissioning of treatment," it reads. But of course very few people read manifestos. So what matters is the message that Labour is sending out - and campaign posters attacking the Lib Dems as "soft" on drugs shows that the party has opportunistically spied a dividing line with Clegg's party by hammering its desire to reform drugs policy. “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," Martin Jelsma, Director of the drugs policy programme of the Transnational Institute, recently told me.

The alternative is hardly earth-shattering: following the evidence of what actually works in drug policy, rather than mindless tub-thumping. But political expediency dictates that the Conservatives and Labour do not speak out against the disastrous status quo. While that remains the case, 3,000 people will die every year from drug use in the UK.

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 economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear