The Labour Leadership Doesn’t Back Drug Reform – But Maybe That Doesn’t Matter?

Labour’s two princes over the water, Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan might be the party’s best hopes for drug reform, argues Jay Jackson

by Jay Jackson

Over the past couple of years, it has become increasingly clear that the key players in the Labour Party in Westminster are unwilling to back progressive drug reforms. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer has argued against legalising cannabis specifically, and against changing any of our drug laws whatsoever. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting has said that in his view the ‘war on drugs’ is yet to even begin, and sniped on shadow cabinet WhatsApp chats about the perceived importance of drug policy reform to winning the next election. 

Shadow Justice Secretary has talked of ‘naming and shaming’ drug users, and lambasted Sadiq Khan’s London Drugs Commission saying he won’t let the capital be turned into a ‘drugs supermarket’. And Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has, as far as I am aware, yet to say basically anything on drugs at all, as most of her energies are focused towards the ongoing ‘small boats’ migration crisis.

Whether the key figures at a national level can or will ever be persuaded to embrace drug policy reform is a matter of opinion. Given what I’ve written about Starmer’s Labour here and elsewhere I think you know where I stand on that matter. So it’s vital that Labour has other voices who are willing to roll the pitch, embrace the cause, and make the arguments for drug policy reform. 

Sadiq Khan is one person who has begun to do so. The Mayor of London has a ‘London Drugs Commission’ due to report in the autumn (conveniently timed to be around the Labour party conference in October – watch out for that) that is examining our laws primarily on cannabis, but will also stray into other areas of drug policy. The commission is chaired by former Lord Chancellor and first ever Justice Secretary, Lord Charlie Falconer.

Whilst the outcome is not predetermined and both Falconer and Khan have stressed this is about ‘following the evidence’, if you’re reading this you probably know what the evidence actually says, and thus what is likely to come out of the commission. 

Khan was photographed at a cannabis farm during a visit to California last year, further evidence of his embrace of the issue – it is simply inconceivable that Keir Starmer would ever allow himself to be photographed within 5 miles of anything related to drugs. 

Meanwhile, Greater Manchester Mayor and ‘king of the north’ Andy Burnham has a less clear cut but nonetheless positive track record and outlook on drugs. He’s been consistent in his calls for better funding for public services to address the record levels of drug use and deaths, and his vision for a ‘Manchester Model’ of public service reform could provide the foundation for a real plan to tackle Manchester’s specific problems with drugs like spice. 

Burnham’s close relationship with his night time economy advisor, Sacha Lord, who has been at the forefront of efforts to implement harm-reduction focused policies in the city, especially at his Warehouse Project events, is further evidence of his tacit endorsement of sensible measures designed to reduce drug related harms.

Whilst on the surface Burnham and Khan disagreed with each other over cannabis reform when I asked them at last year’s Labour party conference in Liverpool, the reality is slightly more complicated, and Burnham himself reveals it in the first line of his response. 

“We all have our sort of views on things and sometimes diverge from party policy, on this one I think I’m more in tune with party policy” Burnham explains, demonstrating perfectly the politics at play in this scenario. 

Regional mayors, as politicians with significant media profiles but with sufficient distance from Westminster and autonomy over their own political agenda, have the opportunity to embrace and advocate for specific causes – including going against or further than official party policy – without causing the friction that would be created if an MP, someone under the party whip, did the same. 

This is precisely why Khan can pursue his London drugs commission, and it’s why Andy Burnham was the darling of Labour conference in 2022, as he spoke freely on a wide range of issues including PR, devolution and transport in a way that a shadow cabinet minister of a similar profile simply would not be able to, being bound by collective responsibility. 

Burnham’s hesitancy to align himself with Khan on drug reform may not have been the result of a genuine policy disagreement, but the result of him not wanting to step on Khan’s toes – letting him own the drug reform agenda. 

Burnham has his own focus, having made a name for himself as ‘king of the north’ during COVID, and since making transport a central plank of his political agenda – creating the bee network of publicly owned buses in Manchester. 

Whilst Khan and Burnham both have the space to diverge from party policy on certain causes, there’s also a politics of space in terms of respecting each other’s carved out niche. So even though it might seem as if Burnham is at odds with Khan on this issue, the truth may be slightly more complex.

Whilst currently Keir Starmer seems set to become our next Prime Minister, we are still probably eighteen months or so away from the next election, and a lot will happen between now and then.

If Rishi Sunak can pull of the John Major trick of 1992 and squeak home with an unexpected victory, then surely Starmer – whose entire political project has been unwaveringly devoted to become electorally appealing to swing voters – would not be given the chance to fight another election, ushering in a new leadership contest. 

Whilst neither Burnham nor Khan are currently MPs and thus would not be eligible to stand for the leadership, whether it’s in 2024 or at a more distant point in the future, they will surely be two of the biggest contenders at the next leadership election. The punters clearly think so, as despite neither being in the Commons, Burnham is currently the favourite to replace Starmer, and Khan is shorter odds than prominent Labour right figures such as David Lammy and Jess Phillips. 

So whilst the mood music from the Labour party on drugs has been pretty dispiriting under the leadership of Keir Starmer, regional figures in the party like Khan and Burnham – and Police and Crime Commissioners like Simon Foster in the West Midlands – are using their latitude to lay the foundations on which a future national Labour leadership – less beholden to focus groups – can begin the campaign to overturn fifty years of failure in our unrelenting ‘war on drugs’. 

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

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