New Labour 2.0

Labour politicians should be on the same side as the public, throwing criticism and demands at the v

August should be the month in which Gordon Brown reboots the Labour Party. Faced with a wall of criticism and media hostility, the opportunity to upgrade to a fresh script - articulating Labour’s message of fairness and fair play in times of economic austerity - should be seized.

There is no shortage of advice about tactics and stylistics. But at the end of the day Labour’s salvation can only come from clear policy leadership, boldness and ideas that inspire.

Eleven years ago, Labour needed to break in to new territory to prove its credentials and demonstrate it could govern competently. Today, Labour needs to break out of the establishment mode and free itself from the administrative mindset, that stifling managerialism which risks conveying a sense of bureaucratic torpor.

Ministers need to raise their sights, step back from the daily churn of micro-management, and apply the core value of fairness to their portfolios. Instead of defensive politics, standing on a stage explaining to a frustrated audience that everything is under control, Labour politicians should be in the stalls, on the same side as the public, throwing criticism and demands at the vested interests that still hamper social and economic progress.

Labour’s enduring ambitions for fairness need reiterating urgently. A sense of fight, urgency, and hunger to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few must now be Gordon Brown’s course of action.

The first iteration of New Labour was right for its time. When politics is easy and your opponents are on the run, ‘triangulating’ is a simple task, where political terrain can be captured because the public are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

When politics is tough and the Opposition attempting to grab territory, then classic triangulating devices are less likely to succeed.

Instead, New Labour 2.0 needs an entirely different approach. Gordon Brown should take advantage of Cameron’s attempts to appear centrist, deploying some well targeted propositions that would stretch his coalition-building efforts beyond breaking point. Wedge issues that resonate with robust Labour values need to pierce Conservative vulnerability in a bold and agenda-capturing manner.

Self-contained and requiring minimal explanation, we need clear Labour ideas that say exactly what they do on the tin and that the Tories would be loathe to be seen opposing. And there is no shortage of potential policy measures.

For example, hypothecating revenue from pockets of privilege and directing resource into fairer, more popular causes was a hallmark of the first version of New Labour’s pledge card; taking resources from the assisted places scheme to cut class sizes; the windfall on privatised utility profits for the New Deal; cutting NHS red tape to reduce waiting lists. New Labour 2.0 should apply this core strategy afresh.

A windfall levy on excessive energy company profits would be a good start but only if the resources are explicitly ring-fenced for easing the pain on the vast majority of the population aggrieved at their rising bills. Suspending the 5 per cent VAT on fuel bills would go down well. Clear, straightforward, fair and New Labour 2.0.

Take another example: how better to show the public Labour is on their side than a £200 cut in council tax bills? This could be achieved if a modest 10p ‘community payback levy’ were introduced on individual earnings above £250,000 a year – asking the super-rich to pay something back to society by relieving the burden on the vast majority of households.

New Labour’s fundamentals need to be preserved; fighting for fair play and fair rewards for hard work and enterprise. Social justice and economic efficiency are compatible, and any renewed version of New Labour needs to sustain that delicate balance.

A progressive centre-left approach has enduring appeal especially in protecting working people from the excesses of market failure. The government is right to encourage a thriving financial services industry, but simultaneously it must act to restrain excessive profiteering and irresponsibility by those in positions of power.

There are ample examples of reckless hedging and short-selling, banking excesses leaving householders in mortgage jeopardy, where a progressive government should be seen standing up on the side of ordinary people and shaping a well-balanced, well-regulated economic environment.

While the Tories are fixated on 'detoxifying' their brand, toning down their fundamental reputation, for Labour the focus must be to rejuvenate its brand, toning up the core component of fairness, finding fresh definition and edge to sharpen the message and rediscover Labour's campaigning characteristics.

The public are not dogmatically Conservative or Labour – they want a strong lead from whichever party offers the fairest solutions in difficult times. The government’s operating system needs updating for contemporary circumstances, weeding out obsolete constraints and offering new functional appeal based on its core strengths.

New Labour’s original vigour can be distilled and reapplied, disentangled from the risk-averse establishment mindset, with a bold emphasis on fairness and change winning respect once again. This is the new software that Labour now requires.

Chris Leslie is director of the New Local Government Network. He was MP for Shipley between 1997 and 2005 and a minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015. 

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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.

Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.

Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.

Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.

Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”

Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.

In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.