Last September, it appeared that the Labour Party had chosen to send a message with its choice of international guest speaker at the annual party conference. As Labour have longed used the American Democratic Party as a canary-in-the-mine, the awarding of the stage to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that he may have been handpicked to be for Ed Miliband what Bill Clinton had been for Tony Blair; his role was to be the bearer of glad tidings telling of a new direction for establishment left parties that was not only be exciting but was also capable of delivering electoral success.
In the 90’s, Clinton’s rise had foreshadowed New Labour’s recalibration of the party’s core-principles to make them more amenable with the tenants of neoliberalism. In turn, De Blasio’s landslide election win in 2013 could have been read as betraying the limitations of Blarite ‘third way’ politics following the financial crash of 2008. Victory could be now delivered by challenging the status quo. For De Blasio, that meant making explicit a desire to tackle growing wealth inequality. However, it also meant opposing the continuous criminalisation of disadvantaged communities caused by draconian drug laws and police practices. In his mayoral campaign, De Blasio placed front and centre a promise to “end the stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of colour.” Realising that drug prohibition was, in practice, an enabling element in perpetuating stop-and-frisk, De Blasio softened the penalty for marijuana possessionand showed little hesitation in rhetorically tying the effect of drug prohibition enforcement into the structural discrimination visited upon minority communities by the criminal justice system.
However, in contrast to De Blasio, the Labour Party have used the run up to 2015 General Election to score cheap political points by equating other parties being open to drug policy reform with them being ‘soft on crime’. When Ed Miliband was recently asked about drug policy reform on the BBC, he jovially dismissed the questioner’s reasoned argument as if she was asking for a free Ferrari for every house. She followed up by asking Miliband: if his were children using cannabis, would he consider it a health or criminal matter? Miliband responded by saying he would stop them using it in the first place! This answer displayed about the same level of nuanced, practical thought that his party had put into drug policy within theirmanifesto. How would Labour deal with the problem of legal highs? They will ban them. Of course, just ban the drugs! Why didn’t anybody think of this before?
Recycling lazy, simplistic narratives, the Labour Party manifesto re-affirmed an unwavering adherence to prohibition at a time when progressives around the world are thinking about and, in many cases, implementing alternative drug policies. Marijuana has become legally regulated in U.S. states like Colorado, Washington and Alaska and in countries like Uruguay. Closer to home, Portugal has successful decriminalised possession of all drugs with positive results for social welfare. As only a city mayor, De Blasio’s initiatives to reduce arrests for marijuana has been relatively tame in comparison but he has delivered on his campaign promise to curb the use of stop-and-frisk (the NYC incarnation of stop-and-search), appointing an official monitor to oversee the reform of this police tactic, resulting in a drop of around 75%in the number of people searched from 2013 to 2014. Of course the problems between police and minority communities in New York City are clearly far from resolved, as the limits of effecting change through party politics are being to reveal themselves, yet De Blasio has at least recognised that these are serious issues which affect lives of those he represents.
The same cannot be said for his correspondents across the Atlantic. On these points, Ed Miliband has been deafening in his silence. Here in the U.K. stop-and-search is just as racially discriminatory and as ineffective a police tactic as its New York counterpart. A 2013 report by Release and the London School of Economics showed that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people (with Asian people are twice as likely to be stopped). The arrest rate following these searches was a dismal 7%. The obvious corollary leads us to see how drug prohibition, particularly the enforcement of marijuana prohibition, has been a major driver in the over-policing and subsequent criminalisation of minority communities.
The ambivalence towards addressing theses issues provides a microcosm of the failings of the contemporary Labour Party. It is unimaginable that the senior policy makers in the party are unaware of the damaging consequences of drug prohibition. That the ‘war on drugs’ has failed is now open secret, a call for its end being proclaimed by everyone from Kofi Annan to Richard Branson. What is more, drug policy reform would not only be sensible but also popular: 53% of the general public support legal regulation or decriminalisation of cannabis, with 67% supporting an independent review of our current drug laws which would consider all possible alternatives. No, it is far more likely that Labour policy makers are aware that reforming drug laws and discriminatory police practices could improve the lives of the young, of minority communities, of many of those we would assume to be Labour’s target voters but the party remains crippled by a fear of offending middle-class sensibilities and inviting the wrath of the conservative press.
Easy parallels can be drawn between the biographies of Miliband and De Blasio. Both are the progeny of 60’s leftistradicals and both were originally outsiders who had to defeat the party establishment’s favourite candidate- David Miliband and Christine Quinn, respectively- in order to gain their current positions. Both won because they seemed they might bring about a renewed commitment to progressive ideas for their hopelessly compromised parties. Yet whilst De Blasio has taken some brave initially steps towards addressing the contentious issues of drug policy and discriminatory police practices, Miliband has given nothing to suggest to those concerned with these problems that the Labour Party is anywhere they should bother turning to.
Regardless of the final result on May the 7th, both Labour and the Tories will be shown to be in the midst of a historic slide. The establishment parties of the left and right used to split 95% of the vote between them, this time will struggle to make 65%, with new parties rising on all sides. One reason for this deterioration is the amount of legitimate demands by the public which are not entertained by either party. Drug policy reform is a perfect example of this. Last September, De Blasio offered the Labour party a progressive pathway out of terminal decline when he instructed them to ‘reject the cold complacency of the status quo’. In the context of the speech, his statement was about tackling inequality. However, it is just as relevant when thinking about drug policy reform and the discriminatory criminal justice system.
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