For Drug Reform to Progress, Modern Politicians Should Look to the Past

Efforts to reform our drug laws to make them more humane are being ignored by a generation of politicians who follow rather than lead, writes Jay Jackson

by Jay Jackson

Whilst there are *a lot* of things that were not desirable about politics in previous decades, the ability and willingness of politicians – particularly leading figures – to shape, guide and lead public opinion – as opposed to simply reacting to it – is something that modern politics is sorely lacking. 

Drug policy reform – or the lack thereof – is in part a consequence of this. Perception is reality in politics, and whilst in reality there is a significant desire for changes to our drug laws (e.g. for legalising cannabis and taking a health based approach rather than criminal justice interventions), the perception amongst the political class still strongly believes drug reform to be a no-go area. 

Polling from last year even showed that certain drug policy reform measures garnered more support in ‘red wall’ areas than in the country as a whole. But even this isn’t enough to shake the vast majority of our politicians out of their stale assumptions that reforming our drug laws is tantamount to political suicide by being seen to be ‘soft on crime’. 

It’s not for a lack of evidence based policies that we don’t have the reforms we want. It’s modern society and politics and politicians that are the problem. In a process that has been happening for decades, politicians are now more than ever beholden to focus groups, opinion polling and the views of a noisy minority of their constituents and the conservative media ecosystem that ensures their pliant acquiescence. But it hasn’t always been this way. 

The ‘permissive society’ social reforms of the Wilson government during the 1960s – supporting backbench MPs in liberalising laws on censorship, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and the abolition of capital punishment – were largely against the grain of popular opinion, particularly with regards to homosexuality and the death penalty. 

Clearly in hindsight, the vast majority of people would now suggest that these changes were the right thing to do, and a good political culture should enable politicians to take decisions that may only be vindicated in the medium to long term. This is the only way that structural, long term issues such as the climate emergency or social care can be effectively addressed.

10 downing street doorAnd it wasn’t just Labour. Margaret Thatcher’s entire political vision was based on completely overturning the post-war consensus, taking unpopular decisions and leading the public, teaching as she went. This – in conjunction with a number of external factors such as the disastrous Labour/SPD split – led to three stunning electoral victories, but Thatcher’s obstinacy and willingness to be unpopular was ultimately to prove her downfall via the ‘poll tax’. 

Nevertheless, the painful monetarist economic doctrine, the destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industries and early climate advocacy were bold, contrary and unpopular political choices taken because she thought that they were the right thing to do, not because they were popular with the public. 

Where once politicians offered the vision of White Heat’, the ‘Big Bang’ or ‘a new Jerusalem’, populism is the order of the day in modern politics, as politicians – see recent media sensation Lee Anderson as just the latest example – strive to position themselves as the most representative of ‘ordinary people’ – whoever they are, and proclaim their views as ‘common sense’ – whatever that is. There’s even now a ‘common sense group’ of backbench Tory MPs who are spearheading the ‘war on woke’

A political culture that produces the managerialist clash of Sunak vs Starmer, that is so completely devoid of ideas, and devoid of any willingness to argue for something not because it is popular, but despite being unpopular, is doomed to continually avoid addressing morally charged, and public-opinion-confused policy areas such as drug policy.

Our kowtow political culture, where focus groups, opinion polls and vox pops have the ability to render null a lifetime of belief and advocacy for a particular cause, can be traced back to at least the mid 90s with the creation of ‘New Labour’ under Blair and Brown. But this debate about the nature of politics and representation is far older than that. 

Edmund Burke, the prominent eighteenth century political philosopher and MP promoted the ‘trustee model of representation’ and railed against the ‘delegate model’ where constituents elect their representatives to act only as a mouthpiece for the wishes of their constituency and have no autonomy to act in their own conscience, as they are bound by the imperative mandate. There’s also the ‘descriptive model’ – the idea that MPs should literally represent the people who elect them, for example by being from a similar background to most of their constituents, and thus think in a similar way. 

Clearly a balance needs to be struck between these competing theories of representation, as any single one of them on their own is open to abuse and will prove unsatisfactory. But how can we change our politics, so that we have a greater chance of changing our approach to drugs? How do we move away from a system where politicians feel beholden to received wisdom, to one where they can instead shape, guide and lead the popular imagination?

Electoral reform – the introduction of a proportional system – would be the single most significant step in the right direction, as this would end the tyranny of the marginal seat/voter, whereby the opinions of a select number of people in a few constituencies are disproportionately valued due to the unfair nature of our current voting system.

Another important change would be the diversification of our political class so that it better represents society as a whole, including people with lived experience of drug use. 

Finally, reforms to the devolution settlement and a clear delineation of the roles of MPs versus the roles of local councillors would enable MPs to focus more time and energy on national causes, legislative scrutiny and addressing morally complex policy areas- rather than having to focus on potholes and bin collections which are supposed to be handled by local politicians. 

Thangam Debbonaire and Jeff Smith, co-founders of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform are notable exceptions in our current political class, willing to make the case for more humane drug policies. 

In order to bring our drug laws into the twenty-first century our politicians might need to rediscover some of the spirit of the political giants of the past. We have a hidden drug death epidemic, with drugs cheaper, more accessible, purer and more dangerous than ever before; but our politicians – with some notable exceptions – are unwilling to argue for the policies needed, follow the evidence and yes maybe annoy some old people – to reduce the tragic and unnecessary harms drugs are causing in our society. 

Jay Jackson is secretariat of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform and a Researcher with The Loop. Tweets @wordsbyjayj

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