Starmer can do better than merely rowing in behind the SNP on drug policy

Sir Keir Starmer’s latest intervention in the drug policy debate shows just how woefully incoherent the whole thing has become. The Labour leader backs Scotland’s decision to start issuing warnings to people caught in possession of Class A drugs, but not actually overhauling the law.

This has been done to try and make a dent in Scotland’s horrifying drugs deaths statistics, although it isn’t obvious that it will do this. It could make people less reluctant to seek help if they get into trouble; it could also just encourage more people to take drugs.

Likewise, relying on case-by-case decisions by officers is an unreliable way to deliver meaningful change.

One potential upside of the decision is that the police could initiate the de facto breakup of the nonsense category that is ‘Class A’. There is no sensible case for treating LSD (‘acid’) or MDMA (‘ecstasy’) the same as heroin or meth. They are completely different substances with very different user bases and threat profiles. Most MDMA deaths are artefacts of prohibition, either because people didn’t know what they were taking or were reluctant to seek help; LSD basically doesn’t kill people at all.

The negative externalities of the criminal trade – which feature heavily in Priti Patel’s attack on Starmer’s decision – are also different when the drug in question is synthesised in the Netherlands rather than harvested in Latin America, Afghanistan or the Golden Triangle.

But without updating the actual legislation governing these substances, there is no guarantee of this wiser approach. It also means that many of the potential upsides of actual decriminalisation, such as allowing nightclubs to host drugs-testing facilities to stop ravers taking poisonous pills, will remain off-limits.

Meanwhile the signal sent to consumers is strong and clear. The SNP’s approach risks getting many of the downsides of decriminalisation with fewer of the upsides.

It’s unfortunate that Starmer has opted for such a weak position on this question. For Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers, making changes to police guidance makes tactical sense because it minimises scrutiny from MSPs and avoids having to divert resources from what they really care about: independence.

The Leader of the Opposition does not face the same constraints, and could if he chose set out a bold and intellectually-coherent approach. That need not be decriminalisation – a ‘Goldilocks’ policy that has serious drawbacks – but it would be far better than just rowing in behind the SNP. If a politician with his background can’t come up with some interesting proposals for reforming the criminal law in such an important area, then who will?

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Chris Newton: The Government’s Free Speech Bill won’t fix universities if viewpoint diversity isn’t addressed too

Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

As universities start a new academic year, the Government’s Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is going through Parliament. The bill strengthens and protects university freedom of speech and is desperately needed.

University cancel culture” is not just an American phenomenon (and Peter Boghossian’s recent resignation letter to Portland State University indicates it’s still a major problem there). One needn’t go back far to find examples of academics and students in the UK having their freedom of speech threatened as well.

Just this month, the media reported that the University of Bristol dropped Professor Steven Greer’s module on Islam and the Far East. This is despite Greer being cleared by a five-month investigation into complaints about his alleged views on Islam.

In Scotland, where the bill will not unfortunately apply, Neil Thin, a senior lecturer Edinburgh University who criticised the renaming of David Hume Tower, faced an investigation after students made unsubstantiated accusations against him. While the university dismissed the complaints, Thin has spoken about the “severe psychological and social damage that can be caused by…unnecessary punitive investigations”.

These are just a couple out of a whole litany of cases where academics have been subjected to event cancellations, petitions calling for their dismissal, or witch trial style disciplinary procedures.

Their views aren’t, on the whole, regarded as particularly controversial in the real world. Academics have been denounced for defending Brexit, arguing that British history contains good as well as bad aspects, and for saying that biological sex is scientific fact. These views have been met with cries of “xenophobe”, “racist“, or “transphobe, among other slurs.

Recent research indicates that there is a deeper cultural problem. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange found that 44 per cent of academics surveyed who identified as “fairly right” and 63 per cent of those who were “very right” stated that they worked in a hostile working climate. These concerns seem to be justified as only 54 per cent of academics indicated that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch.

The Free Speech Bill should at the very least prevent further noplatformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to create bureaucratic structures that will ensure legal compliance. The Free Speech Union will also keep defending its members and reminding universities of their legal obligations.

These are important developments, but Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, should consider whether the bill as it stands is still a sticking plaster that only deals with the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem.

As has been pointed out by Policy Exchange and others, universities have been able to enforce an ideological orthodoxy because they are dominated by one side of the political spectrum. The Policy Exchange report found that under 20 per cent of academics voted for right-leaning parties in 2017 and 2019, while 75 per cent voted for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens. For all the preaching about “diversity and inclusion” that goes on in universities, political diversity is very much forgotten.

Fuelling the intolerance is also the growing influence of radicals. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of “critical theories” or “critical social justice”, once a fringe element, as a powerful force on campus, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Critical theories” include postcolonialism, critical race theory, and critical gender studies, and are descendants of Marxism and Postmodernism. They believe that Western societies are structurally unequal, and ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people are systemically oppressed.

There is no room for individual agency; power dynamics are structural and pre-determined by group identity. An ideology that believes that those who question their claims regarding systemic oppression are “complicit” in the discrimination is not exactly going to be open to alternative views.

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WATCH: Labour insist maintaining continuity of gas supply is ‘a basic duty of government’

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James Frayne: Johnson’s headroom to raise taxes, in the wake of the new levy, has been dramatically reduced

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

A few weeks ago, opinion polls showed three to one support for a national insurance rise to pay for social care. It’s hard to say for sure where the numbers on this question are now, but the evidence is they’ve moved considerably against the Government (although not irretrievably).

Some suggest that the mess in the media flipped the polls against the Conservatives and put Labour ahead; I think there’s much more to it than this but it clearly didn’t help.

So what went wrong? What were the alternatives that the Government should have considered? And what are the medium-term implications for the Conservatives?

Admittedly, I haven’t tested my sense in detail yet, but it is that three reasons help explain the the shift against the national insurance announcement.

First, and most importantly, it became clear that revenue raised by this higher tax won’t be ringfenced for social care. After a day or two of briefing that higher taxes would pay for care, the Government clarified that revenue raised would also pay for the hole in the NHS finances created by Covid.

Ordinarily, adding the letters “NHS” to a political message adds several points to a political message (ask Vote Leave). Here, it simply made people think (rightly) that pretty much all revenue raised would go into the great bottomless pit of NHS finances. It’s not that people don’t love the NHS; nor that they want to change the way the NHS is funded. It’s just that they quickly realised the Government wasn’t making a social care announcement but a debt repayment announcement.

Second, people got out their calculators quicker than I can ever recall – with the extra they’d pay pushed around widely by the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Politicians have long liked using national insurance as a tax-raising device; not only does it have perfect branding for health and social care announcements, but even people on PAYE – who see the national insurance line on their payslip each week – inexplicably find it less offensive than income tax. This time, a combination of media and social media scrutiny showed people what they’d be paying, and its transparency felt like a council tax rise.

Third, the announcement was too detached from the policy conversation on social care. People care deeply about it, as the Conservatives discovered to their cost during the 2017 election; social care is regularly raised as an issue in focus groups without prompting.

But it’s a complex area, and the Government would have done well to have reheated the policy conversation on social care for several weeks before springing this announcement on the public. Ordinarily, for a policy announcement of this magnitude, you’d expect (some) cross-party support, endorsements by experts from the sector, a formal announcement with the Health Secretary flanked by care workers and all the rest. This time, there was nothing.

Two alternatives would have been better.

The Government could have announced that the country was going to have to cope with a few years of financial pain via higher taxes to pay off Covid debts – and not to have beamed in on social care at all.

I don’t understand why they didn’t do this. Polls have consistently showed the public supported the massive crisis payments to the NHS and furloughed workers. They’re well aware this led to massive debt and they’re also aware debt must be paid off – at least in part with higher taxes.

They would have completely accepted a straightforward explanation that taxes were going to rise – for everyone – to deal with this. Sunset clauses would have made this all go down better, but there’s something in the English psychology that revels in harsh, shared sacrifice. It was a huge, missed opportunity; it’s possible that the Government would even have secured a bounce from it (assuming they said they were going to tackle waste at the same time).

The alternative option would have simply been to have announced a smaller national insurance rise and explained it was going to be strictly ringfenced for social care. This would have given them the option to raise taxes again later. Wrapping social care, the NHS and Covid debt repayment looked shifty and ill-thought-through.

What are the implications for the Conservatives? It’s been said all this undermines the Party’s reputation as a low-tax party. I don’t think this is quite right; most of the public have rightly not viewed the Conservatives as a low-tax party for many, many years, but rather as a lower tax party than Labour.

There are worse things to be: in 2019, this contrast certainly made lower middle voters even more wary of Jeremy Corbyn. But it means that the sort of messages the Conservatives pump out at the annual party conference – around low tax, free enterprise, a small state etc – have zero traction with the public. (It’s weird to think that until a few years ago the party’s logo was a torch of freedom; the rainbow associated with the NHS would be more appropriate.)

If Corbyn were still Labour leader, it’s possible that the Conservatives would have retained this lower-tax advantage regardless of national insurance. Under Starmer, I think it’s reasonable to assume this advantage will no longer be there.

In turn, all there will be to choose between the Conservatives and Labour on the economy will be competence and stability – in the Conservatives’ case, because they’re in Government, this will be defined entirely by delivery. In other words, if the economy appears stable and grows, they’ll be fine; if not, they’ll be in a mess.

It also means that the party’s freedom on other issues is dramatically reduced. There’s no way now the Government can introduce any new tax rises; at that point, their polling numbers really would go off a cliff; everything now needs to be revenue neutral, with taxes raised balanced out by taxes cut. Most obviously, this somewhat complicates their Net Zero strategy; you would have expected fiscal policy increasingly to have rebalanced towards green taxes.

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WATCH: Rees-Mogg brands Labour a ‘party of people traffickers’


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Will Starmer give vaccine passports a free pass?

“What is the question to which vaccine passports are the answer?” we asked in April.  After all, one can be double vaccinated and still carry the virus.  So providing evidence of the first as one enters a nightclub is no guarantee of not spreading the second.

The only convincing answer is: to raise vaccination rates.  But as ConHome put it then, “such a system would arguably be forced medication – which remains illegal for physical conditions, and might therefore run up against our international obligations, not least under the European Convention of Human Rights”.

Which is why we thought Ministers would be more likely to plump for requiring clubs to demand evidence that entrants are Covid-free – perhaps including lateral flow tests at the door.  Though such a scheme would have brought with it a mass of logistical and organisational problems.

So the Government has gone instead for a policy that won’t stop the spread of the virus altogether, is ethically dicey, and which will leaves it open to potential legal challenge.  Their motive is shown by the timing: Ministers aren’t requiring these passports be used immediately.

The reason?  Partly because the scheme isn’t oven-ready, as Boris Johnson would put it, but partly because although 87 per cent of the population has had a single dose of the vaccuum, only 67 per cent has had two doses.

The nightmare for the Government features young people (who make up a big slice of the unvaccinated) being turned away from nightclubs not because they’ve refused to have even a single dose of the vaccine…but because they’ve indeed had one, but haven’t had the chance to have two.

It would be grotesquely unjust for Ministers, on the one hand, to demand two doses as a condition of entry but, on the other, not ensure that both doses have actually been offered.  Hence the delay until the end of September until passports are demanded – by which time more vaccinations will have been rolled out and more young people persuaded to take them.  Or so the Government hopes.

Perhaps the special NHS app will be cheat-proof and work flawlessly (though confidence in the system as a whole won’t have been boosted by reports of people who use the present one being “pinged through walls”).

Maybe clubbers will simply sign up to be vaccinated and go with the flow.  Perhaps claims of a “racist system”, with more black people than white excluded from events, will fall on deaf ears – and those of an “anti-youth system” will do so too.

It could be that ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act don’t come into play.  And after all, the public as a whole supports restrictions.  Ministers would then be able to roll out the passports for other venues without mass opposition: in theatres, sporting venues, cinemas, pubs – any venue covered by the three Cs: “closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings”.

But even if voters go one way, MPs may go the other.  There will be a Commons vote on the plan in one form or another, and Conservative MPs are very restive about restrictions already.

On the same recent day that 24 Tory backbenchers voted against the 0.7 per cent aid reduction, amidst a mass of publicity, 31 opposed a set of Coronavirus rules.  Forty-nine voted against regulations more broadly last month.

That’s enough to defeat the Government if the opposition piles in too.  And Johnson is not in a great place with his backbenchers: add to those Conservative MPs who tend to rebel over Covid those who believe that Downing Street has no grip, and you soon reach a number larger than 49, especially since the two groups overlap.

The weekend’s chaos over whether or not the Prime Minister and Chancellor would self-isolate has been well and truly clocked by backbenchers.  Vaccine passports will add fuel to the fire, since they first seemed to be on, then were off (“we are not looking at a vaccine passport for our domestic economy, Nadhim Zahawi said in February)…and are now on again.

With the Covid Recovery Group arguing that requiring vaccine passports means creeping ID cards, Keir Starmer will be able to weigh the risk of getting on the wrong side of public opinion against the opportunity to defeat the Government.

Perhaps Johnson’s real plan is first to up vaccination rates among young people and then withdrawn the passport scheme. If not, the Labour leader will come under pressure from the party’s MPs to abandon his lawyerly caution and go in for the kill.

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Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 5) Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

5. Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

What it is

The Bill will “strengthen the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers”.

It falls into three parts, of which the most significant are the first two. The first part places new free speech duties on colleges and student unions.  The second applies these to the Office of Students, within which will be established a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.

Responsible department

The Department for Education is in charge of this piece of amending legislation, which makes changes to four previous Acts of Parliament.  It gained its Second Reading last week.

Gavin Williamson kicked off the debate and Michelle Donelan wound up.  As Universities Minister, the latter can be expected to lead for the Government during the Bill’s committee stage.

Carried over or a new Bill?


Expected when?

Currently under consideration.

Arguments for

Essentially, that freedom of speech in higher education for both academics and students is under threat, the evidence for which consists of various surveys (see here, for example), and individual incidents – such as Amber Rudd being disinvited when due to speak at Oxford University, and the treatment of academics at Edinburgh University and Cambridge University.

These flare-ups can be seen as incidents in a culture war, much of which is contested in a less dramatic way.  The Right tends to hold that free speech on campus and elsewhere is threatened by radical norms on language and conduct – enforced by “cancellation”, social media and groupthink.  The debate has spilled over into the Left over trans; see this site’s regular Radical column for more.

Arguments against

The most vocal opposition to the Bill comes from the Left, but there is some from the Right too.  The sum of the case from the Left is, first, that there’s no convincing evidence that free speech at colleges is under threat and that, second, the Bill will protect Holocaust deniers, racists and anti-vaxers.  There is also concern that it may weaken free protest.

The Right has a mixed series of reservations.  One is that the Bill goes too far, because it empowers the state to set more conditions for independent institutions.  Another is that it doesn’t go far enough, because both academics and students need further, broader protections which existing legislation, such as the Equality Act, stand in the way of.


The coalition of voters that returned Boris Johnson’s Conservatives with an 80 seat majority will like the flavour of this Bill and, given the toxicity of the debate within the Left on trans, there will be some support within parts of it for the claim that freedom of speech in colleges is under threat, even if those parts are opposed to the Bill, either in principle or in detail.

Labour watched its back at Second Reading – tabling a reasoned amendment which referred to “the need to ensure legal protections for freedom of speech and academic freedom”.  This may reflect a nervousness that the Left’s broad position is self-contradictory: after all, one can’t both support curbs on free speech while also claiming that there’s no threat to it.

Controversy rating: 7/10

That the politics of the Bill favour the Government (the measure is certainly eye-catching) doesn’t guarantee that it will deliver.  The broad threat to free speech, for students and academics of different political and religious persuasions, cannot be seen off by Parliamentary legislation.  Which is important for supporters of the Bill to bear in mind.

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Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 4) The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

1. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

What it is

As well as police, crime, sentencing and the courts, this Bill covers aspects of prisons: the rehabilitation of offenders and secure 16 to 19 academies. Plus “the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles”.

There are twelve parts to this groaning beast of a Bill, and the best-known section of these is the third – which covers “public order and authorised encampments”, and would give the police greater powers in relation to restricting public meetings and protests.  The “Kill the Bill” protests have been a response to it.

Responsible department

The Ministry of Justice – and the Bill has already worked it way through the Commons, gaining Third Reading recently.  There have been claims that the protests have delayed the Bill’s progress.

The sponsoring department isn’t the Home Office, and thus the combative Priti Patel, but the Ministry of Justice, and the more emollient Robert Buckland.  However, Victoria Atkins and Chris Philp, Home Office Ministers both, took the Bill through Commons committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?


Expected when?

Sooner rather than later in the Commons with Lords amendments.

Arguments for

There is an individual case for each of the twelve parts of the Bill, but Ministers clearly intend it to send the broad message that the Government is tough on crime.  Right at the start of its briefing on the measures, the Home Office (not the Ministry of Justice) declares that the Bill will “back our police” and “introduce tougher sentencing”.

If you itch to crack down on unauthorised encampments and non-violent but disruptive protests, or want to see longer prison sentences and more searches of people convicted of knife offences, this is the Bill for you.  Its third main purpose is “to improve the efficiency of the court and tribunal system by modernising existing court processes”.

Arguments against

One of the main charges against the Bill is that it deliberately wraps up the contentious with the uncontentious – or, to view it from another angle, elements that most MPs support with others that some don’t.  This case was put on this site earlier this year by Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve, and found echoes even in a largely supportive article by Richard Gibbs.

So if, for example, you view the public order provisions in Part Three of the Bill as draconian, but back the plans to reduce custodial remand for children set out in parts eight and nine, you have a dilemma at Second Reading and, still more, at Third Reading – by which time opportunities to amend it in the House concerned have been exhausted.


Part of the purpose of rolling these different elements into a single Bill has undoubtedly been to put the Opposition on the spot.  Labour was thus faced with the forced choice familiar to oppositions, and plumped to oppose Bill both at Second and Third Reading in the Commons.

“Given chance after chance, Labour voted last night against tougher sentences for not just violent offenders, but also burglars, drug dealers, sex offenders, dangerous drivers and vandals,” Robert Buckland tweeted in the aftermath of the Third Reading vote.  There will be plenty more where that came from.

Controversy rating: 9/10

If the Opposition didn’t like it in the Commons, it will like it even less in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Lords.  And protesters will hate it no less intensely than before.  The average voter may have clocked the protests but won’t be aware of the Bill.  If it leads to better policing, less crime, speedier courts and better sentencing, he will be pleasantly surprised.

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Leadbeater’s first test: will she rebuke Shah’s call to criminalise cartoons of Mohammed?

Labour’s victory in Batley & Spen has had the outsize effect on the political narrative that wins by a couple of hundred votes always do. But you can be sure the party noticed how close George Galloway came to handing this safe seat to the Conservatives.

Although his new Workers’ Party of Great Britain doesn’t seem to have quite the pulling power that Respect used to, a strong third place suggests that the danger is real – and he might try playing spoiler again at the general election.

Perhaps that’s why Naz Shah, Labour’s ‘Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion’, used the debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill to call for what sounds very much like a blasphemy law.

Her logic is if the Government is introducing stringent criminal penalties for vandalising statues, it ought to do the same for people who “defame, slander or abuse” religious figures. If not, Shah suggests, ministers risk erecting “a hierarchy of sentiments”.

One might argue – indeed, I have – that the PCSC Bill is at least as much about public order as public feeling. Shah has no time for that:

“To those who say it is just a cartoon, I will not say, “It’s only a statue”, because I understand the strength of British feeling when it comes to our history, our culture and our identity. It is not just a cartoon and they are not just statues. They represent, symbolise and mean so much more to us as human beings.”

That’s the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion seeming to suggest that drawing a picture of Mohammed is not a legitimate act by people who can “debate, discuss, disagree and even respectfully and vehemently oppose” a religious figure, but the public-order equivalent of actual vandalism.

Is that actually Labour’s position? It’s not just an academic question. As of a couple of weeks ago, at least, a teacher who showed cartoons of Mohammed in class was still in hiding. How much help can he expect from his new Labour MP?

We must hope that Kim Leadbetter is as prepared to face down her own front bench as she was the thugs on the by-election campaign trail – even if this means continuing to antagonise the voters who backed Galloway and thus nearly handed the seat to the Tories.

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WATCH: Bradley – Labour have ‘gone backwards’ in Batley and Spen


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