Wes Streeting, the shadowy health and social secretary, offered intriguing insights into the latest Labor model. He said he would not “evade” the use of private providers to cut hospital waiting lists, and then danced his way through the transgender debate by demanding more empathy from both sides. He argued that we should respect experienced women’s rights activists and not try to change languages like ‘breastfeeding’, but also avoid ‘dehumanizing’ attacks while addressing the deep concerns of the trans society.
This showed how Sir Keir Starmer seeks to present his party: sensible and sober, sounding powerful and strong, seeking to seduce as broad a section of voters as possible while avoiding taking a strong stance on controversial issues. Labor is being reshaped to reflect its leader, who offers stark personal contrast to a dingy, chaotic and self-serving Tory prime minister. And the strategy seems to work to some degree, as both the party and the leader have a nice lead in the polls.
Starmer deserves some praise for having thrown away his predecessor’s toxic baggage and strengthened the shadow cabinet to look like a possible government on hold. Defense spokesman John Healey has just published one “Dossier of waste” accuses the government of having spent 13 billion. GBP on unresolved military procurement since 2010, a sign that it has rediscovered the benefits of forensic opposition, so demonstratively demonstrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown under another divided Tory government.
Yet there are still questions about Starmer’s caution and his relentless focus on recapturing voters from the red wall that left Labor for Boris Johnson. Guided by Blairite advisers and focus groups, Starmer carefully wraps himself in the flag, avoids fierce criticism of the Brexit failure and focuses on crime. He underscored this approach with a keynote speech last week on security and respect, promising “visible” police centers and a “tough new approach to closing drug dens.”
We have seen before how this approach works with a Labor government. Blair and Brown put a new offense on the law book for every day in office over the age of 13, showing the catastrophic impact of criminal justice policies based on headlines. They increased the number of prisons but did not do much to reduce recidivism. A major cause of both crime and overcrowded prisons is the lack of tackling often intertwined problems with addiction and mental health. Instead, there is still dependence on the corrosive war on drugs when cannabis, spices and heroin can not even be kept out of high-security prisons – or indeed cocaine from the Palace of Westminster.
This self-harming approach has led to a dismal double: Britain has the highest prison population and the worst rate of drug-related deaths in Western Europe. All fatalities and wasted lives behind bars are a condemnatory charge of Westminster’s persistent failure. Politicians are speeding up the idea that the use of drugs that they consider illegal should be punished, and they put forward a fantasy that they can stifle the flows of heroin, cocaine and cannabis instead of focusing on harm reduction and regulation. So they talk about being tough – then the control of lucrative drug markets weakly enforces the world’s most violent gangsters, while ignoring security issues and doing far too little to combat the pain of addiction.
This was the New Labor approach, this is the Tory approach, and unfortunately this seems to be Starmer’s approach – although he must be well aware of the futility of the drug war as a former director of public prosecutions. Last week I asked about a lawsuit “diversion scheme” in London to educate instead of prosecute young cannabis users, he replied that he “does not believe in changing drug laws and does not support decriminalization”. Yet his shadow cabinet includes several leading Labor supporters of just such a reform, while in the leadership election he declared that he supports schemes that do not prosecute for possession of cannabis.
Behind this hypocrisy lies the fear of criticism, he may be “soft” on crime or drugs. He is not alone: Ministers are also seeking smooth headlines with silly comments about the oppression of middle-class cocaine users. Both sides suffer from a condescending illusion that voters from red walls are more socially conservative than other citizens, although polls although transgender issues show minimal divergence. Meanwhile, the legacy of Westminster’s irresponsibility in relation to drugs was revealed again when Starmer gave his speech. A study in Bournemouth heard about a 16-year-old girl who died after taking ecstasy when her friends delayed calling for an ambulance for two hours as they “Did not want to get in trouble”. This led to irreversible brain damage and another family was destroyed by an unnecessarily ruined life.
A government review admitted that enforcement has “little impact on accessibility” but “potential unintended consequences … such as violence related to drug markets”. Polls have shown that more than three-quarters of voters believe that threats of criminal sanctions are ineffective in deterring drug users. Even some socially conservative tories admit that private bans do not work. No wonder police forces from Scotland to Somerset, frustrated at wasting scarce resources on people with addiction problems or harmless random users, ignore the political stasis and introduce diversion schemes. The model is Portugal, which proved that focusing on public health is far more effective than punishment. Now there are many more nations from Canada to Israel, Italy, South Africa and Uruguay introduces drug reforms.
Look at Germany, where Labour’s soulmates just won power and promised to legalize cannabis. Starmer has to find trouble defining his leadership instead of just hoping he sneaks into Downing Street as an antidote to Johnson’s toxic populism and stares him in the face. If he wants to prove that he is patriotic, tough on crime and cares about fighting societies, Starmer should challenge the corrosive war on drugs. This is genuine modernization – not just dusting off Blair’s gloomy handbook on crime and falling into Westminster’s amazement at drugs.