You don't have to wait for the psychoactive substances bill to become law for the absurd spectacle of its enforcement. If you want a quick preview of what happens when society truly loses its mind over drugs, pop down to Lambeth after August 17th, when they'll be imposing a 'public spaces protection order' banning…. well, pretty much everything.
People within the 'restricted area' will not be able to "ingest, inhale, inject, smoke, possess or otherwise use"… "substances with the capacity to stimulate or depress the central nervous system" according to the order.
As has been well documented, virtually anything can "stimulate or depress" the central nervous system, including oxygen, flowers, incense, or paint. There's no point going on. The list is endless. They might as well have written this thing up in crayons. Except it's possible the crayons themselves would be banned by it.
There are exemptions for alcohol (of course) as well as "substances used for a valid and demonstrable medicinal use", "given to an animal as a medicinal remedy", "cigarettes or vaporisers", or "food stuffs regulated by food health and safety legislation".
Lambeth council's legal highs order is actually even more insane than the nonsense being proposed by the Home Office. At least the psychoactive substances bill requires that substances affect "the person's mental functioning or emotional state". Lambeth doesn't even both doing that. More significantly, it doesn't have the 'reasonable' caveat in the bill protecting shop keepers from prosecution for misuse of items like glue.
The order highlights many of the problems with the roll-your-own style of legislation which Asbos began and the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 continued. These guys make Home Office civil servants look like geniuses.
A press release by Lambeth council focuses almost exclusively on laughing gas – a basically harmless substance which causes very mild euphoria for a minute or so. It adds:
"There have been 57 separate reports by police regarding legal highs in the borough over the last 12 months with incidents including robbery, theft, anti-social behaviour and sexual assault."
The idea that someone is committing robbery or sexual assault because of laughing gas – either in some drug-addled frenzy or to feed their non-existent addiction to a non-addictive drug – is almost laughable. Except of course the moral implications of these sorts of easy, dim-witted statements are perverse. It suggests that those who rob or commit sexual assault are somehow less responsible for their action, because of the mystical influence of these terrible new drugs. It's utter pish, but pish which removes the full moral culpability of those who commit real crime. And by crimes I mean the old fashioned sort – things which are actually real and wrong and banned by legislation after a debate between elected representatives in parliament.
Because none of the major parties have the bravery or the sense to oppose this comically illiberal nonsense, it's up to smaller fringe ones like the Pirate party to issue statements criticising it. Here's Mark Chapman of its Lambeth division doing what the major parties should be doing if they retained any basic comprehension or conviction:
"This is a totally disproportionate response to a genuine problem of anti-social behaviour and litter and highlights the absurdity which follows from the government's widely-ridiculed psychoactive substances bill.
"Clearly I don't really believe that the police are going to be targeting churches using incense, or stopping DIY shops selling glue – but the fact that these activities will become illegal in Lambeth and are just not being enforced highlights the chilling effect that such draconian legislation has.
"We see only too well with incidents in the past that the police need to enforce the law without fear or favour – and not just target those whom they don’t like for whatever reason."
I'm tempted to put Chapman's hypothesis to the test. Perhaps we should all show up to the police station in Lambeth with paint and demand to be arrested. Let's see how committed they are to this nonsense.
One key aspect has been missing from Michael Gove's growing commitment to a more liberal prison policy: an understanding of numbers. After a very well-received speech earlier this month in which he outlined his thinking on the subject, the new justice secretary was asked if he recognised that without reducing the number of prisoners, and therefore improving the staff-to-inmate ratio, it would be impossible to give them the attention they needed for rehabilitation.
Gove parked it. He gave what I thought to be a certain nod-of-the-head – or at least he did not rule it out. But he refused to say that prisoner numbers needed to be reduced.
Today, in a remarkable statement from chief prison inspector Nick Hardwick, that point was made again, this time more forcefully. It came at the end of a damning report on conditions in Wandsworth prison, which holds 1,630 adult men – 70% over its certified normal accommodation of 963. Meanwhile, there were "severe staffing shortages" – where staff were down by 100 since the last inspection.
The consequences were predictable. Processes to keep prisoners safe "lacked resilience". There had been four suicides since the last inspection and another two deaths – one seemingly a murder – since the report was compiled. Systems to identify and manage violence had lapsed and landings were often unstaffed, allowing more violence to take place. An absence of staff meant those prisoners without work (about a third of them) were in their cells for 23 hours a day. They were unable to use phones or showers.
Usually, the prison inspector's comments at the publication of a report are restricted, as one might imagine, to the prison which has been inspected. But towards the end of Chris Grayling's time at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) Hardwick started issuing lightly-coded attacks on "policy". Today's report sees him veer off-piste right onto national policy in a clear bid to get the issue of prisoner numbers onto the agenda. Here's his statement in full:
"Overcrowding and severe staff shortages had led to deteriorating outcomes at HMP Wandsworth. It was not simply a matter of prisoners spending practically all day confined in shared cells the Victorians had designed for one – unacceptable though that was. Overcrowding, combined with severe staff shortages, meant that almost every service was insufficient to meet the needs of the population.
"Managers and staff in the prison deserve credit for preventing the prison from deteriorating further, but it was not a surprise that some managers and staff were demoralised and others were clearly exhausted. Not all the problems at Wandsworth were a result of the population and resource pressures and this report identifies important areas the prison itself can and should address. Nevertheless, the Prison Service nationally will need to address the mismatch between a prison's available resources and the size and needs of its population. Unless this is addressed, prisons will struggle to hold men safely and decently and to reassure the public that effective work has been done to reduce the risk that prisoners will reoffend and create more victims after release."
Given the system as a whole is stretched to breaking point, this demand equates to a general call for reduced numbers. The message comes not just from Hardwick but from almost every respected penal expert, most of whom Gove has been sensible enough to talk to. You can't improve prison standards without reducing prisoner numbers. But with the political dangers of being seen as soft on crime, will even these increasingly vocal and public warnings be enough to convince him?
After a very drab and lifeless Labour leadership race, the sudden surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn has at last provided some entertainment by scaring the hell out of most media commentators. A private poll reported by the Mirror this morning showed he had actually extended his lead over his rivals, with Yvette Cooper skipping over Andy Burnham to take the second spot while Liz Kendall, the only one of the candidates who has even a flicker of a chance of winning, trails in fourth.
The idea that a left-winger could win the Labour leadership is being treated as akin to a swarm of locusts blotting out the sun. The newspapers which spent so long praising Nigel Farage's hard-right agenda as plain-speaking, man-of-the-people political genius are now falling over themselves to warn Labour off electing someone radical on the left. Labour officials are double-checking everyone who signs up to the party as a potential 'entryist'. The party is as terrified of democracy as it has ever been. Its MPs curse Miliband for democratising the leadership election process.
In a political climate dominated by cynicism and stale managerial language, it's quite tempting to get behind Corbyn as a way of shaking things up a bit. Perhaps he could inspire more young people to vote. He certainly seems to resonate with many of them. Perhaps he could get northern working class voters to switch back from Ukip and Scots to switch back from the SNP, even if he is not likely to win the English suburbs.
So it seems strange to suggest that Corbyn could perhaps use a little more cynicism, given the wave he is riding is based on idealism. But the truth is, he could take a page or two out of Kendall's book.
Labour seems to have split into three factions: The beige, the red and the white. The beige – represented by Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper - are mechanical, seemingly without political values, poor to middling media performers and change according to the prevailing political weather. Burnham, for instance, was a Blairite under Blair, a Brownite under Brown and a Milibandite under Miliband. Under none of those personalities did he appear to be a winner. The whites, representing the white flag contingent and currently led by Kendall, have only one tactic: surrender. They are Blairites without any of the intellectual underpinnings. The reds, under Corbyn, are singing from the same socialist hymn sheet as ever, with absolutely no changes, either ideologically or tactically, since the 1970s.
Is it so much to ask that we could ignore the beige, but have a little bit of red and white together? It is possible to get a genuine leftist into Downing Street, but it requires giving up on some of the political purity which seems to motivate Corbyn's supporters.
An electable left-wing candidate would pick three or so big but achievable goals – let's say renationalising the railways, an NHS constitution preventing private involvement and universal free childcare. And it would pick a couple of big areas in which it would triangulate the Tories. Let's say spending 0.5% more of GDP than whatever they are spending on defence and committing to making all schools free schools.
They would then hammer the Tories on those issues – asking constantly why they were not prepared to keep Britain secure, why they were letting down children by not going far enough on education reform. They would embrace a fight with the anti-arms trade groups and teaching unions. They would make it impossible for the press to paint them as Old Labour Arthur Scargills. And doing so would allow them some of the political space to make the case for, and force through, major left wing reforms.
This sort of strategy seems completely lost on the party. Labour is polarised between total idealism on one hand and total lack of idealism on the other, with an awful lot of beige in the middle. The idea you might use cynical means to accomplish idealistic goals seems completely dead in this new age of political simplicity.
It would be much better if Corbyn and Kendall sat down together and listened. They've a lot to learn from one another.