Labour’s values of security, prosperity and respect must apply to drug policy

Delivering a speech in Birmingham this week, Keir Starmer made a “solemn promise” to the British people that he would uphold the virtues of security, prosperity and respect. Meanwhile, the press reported on Sadiq Khan’s plans in London to pilot a scheme diverting 18- to 24-year-olds found in possession of small quantities of cannabis away from the criminal justice system, in an attempt to reduce reoffending.

During his Q&A with journalists on Tuesday, Starmer was asked about the London mayor’s proposed plans. Disappointingly, he doubled down on his prohibitionist stance regarding drug laws and their enforcement, saying: “I’m not in favour of us changing the law or decriminalisation. I’m very clear about that.”

It is great to see Starmer championing the three principles of security, prosperity and respect, but deeply frustrating that he believes only in their selective application. By re-committing to a policy of continuing the war on drugs, he has chosen to ignore his stated principles, and take no action to enhance prosperity, achieve security or induce respect in this area, as all three are acutely absent from his current approach to drug policy. 

Starmer’s unflinching and unthinking support for the ‘war on drugs’, a half-century old policy that has failed on its own terms, destroying lives and livelihoods, cannot concomitantly exist with the values he espouses. Be in no doubt, our current approach to drug policy has categorically failed. Drug deaths are at records highs, levels of drug use have not reduced, and county lines gangs roam the country devastating communities. 

There is no evidence in favour of continuing on with this misguided crusade. It’s high time the Labour Party finally embraced change, following the lead of people like Sadiq Khan, who has shown he is willing to make difficult decisions in order to bring respect for individuals, security for the public and prosperity for people other than organised crime groups.

Respect is sorely lacking in the policing of drug laws, which disproportionately target young people from ethnic minority backgrounds – particularly young Black males who, in the capital, are 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than the general population. Needless criminalisation based on a moral crusade destroys the life chances of offenders, eliminating their prospects of a secure and prosperous life, and leading to reoffending, further diminishing wider societal security and prosperity. 

Surely, as a former director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir has seen first-hand the devastating consequences of the war on drugs, both on individuals and at a societal level? Indeed, during the Labour leadership contest, Starmer offered his explicit support to the very schemes the London mayor is looking to introduce, saying at the time: “I have supported schemes where cannabis possession… you’re not arrested for it, you’re not prosecuted for it. And I believe in that.” This U-turn will further aggravate critics of Starmer who have highlighted that pledges made during the contest are no longer being honoured by the leadership.

What explains Starmer’s new stance on drug policy? It may well be concerns about the views of so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters, whom the leadership is so keen to bring back into the Labour voting coalition. In spite of the received wisdom that these voters are less in favour of progressive stances on ‘culture war’ issues, polling has so far provided no evidence for this assumption. When YouGov polled ‘Red Wall’ residents on a variety of issues including trans rights, their views were in line with those of the rest of the country. So, assuming that his stance on drugs is shaped by the need to win back ‘Red Wall’ seats, Starmer appears to be formulating a policy position not based on evidence.

Starmer’s principles of security, prosperity and respect provide a solid foundation for building a policy agenda and an accompanying narrative vision, helping to propel Labour back into government. But if the Labour leader is serious about putting those values into practice, he must ensure they are applied to drug policy – which will reduce harm and reduce the causes of harm.

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