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We expect Tories to re-hash failed anti-social behaviour laws. Why is Labour?

OPINION: Labour should push for a fairer, freer society, not call for more police just days after the Casey report

Maurice Mcleod
30 March 2023, 9.47am

Labour leader Keir Starmer at the launch of the party's national mission on crime


Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Shadowy groups of hooded teenagers of ambiguous ethnicity huddle in parks and underpasses littering the ground with their nasty little silver cannisters of death and polluting the air with their vulgar language and disrespect.

This is the picture of Britain the government is trying to paint.

This is a government of gestures and it’s no surprise that during a cost of living crisis, with the country reeling from strike action and trust in the police at an all-time low, it would seek to fight wars against imaginary foes rather than face the real impact of its failures.

The announcement that it will tackle anti-social behaviour “with urgency” is just such a deflection. People who use illegal drugs, rough sleepers, renters and graffiti artists are all part of the great unwashed that the government wants us to be angry with. As usual, people of colour will find themselves at the frontline as police gain yet more power to act disproportionately towards young Black men in inner cities.

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Rishi Sunak has also announced a ban on sales of nitrous oxide (NOS), though when pushed on why could only speak vaguely about the nuisance caused by groups of young people hanging around.

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove – who admits taking cocaine several times as a young journalist – claimed the move was important to “stop parks being turned into drug-taking arenas”.

But NOS was at the height of its popularity a decade ago when around 6.1% of 16- to 24-year-olds reported having recently used it. Use dropped to around 1.3% last year, suggesting that far from ‘a growing scourge’, it is largely working its way out of popularity anyway. Even the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs warned against the efficacy of a ban.

The clampdown is just an unwanted rerun of the failed prohibitionist drug policies that have been in place in the UK since 1971 under the Misuse of Drugs Act. It has all the familiar moral refrains of the war on cannabis, which has had such negative impacts on Black communities, hindering future job opportunities, impacting on housing, access to education and breaking up families.

It doesn’t surprise me that a mandateless government facing economic turmoil and shredded credibility would seek to turn the public's ire onto migrants and now young people.

But it is disappointing the opposition seems willing to try to out play the Tories at their own game. I’m a Labour councillor, and the party should be pointing to the economic and political failure that has left our communities threadbare and the pressures young people are under in a world where their futures seem to have been pawned off.

Unfortunately, you can leave your role as director of public prosecutions, but the role never leaves you. If the police are your only tool, you see every social issue as a crime.

So just days after the Casey report found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic, Labour is repeating its call for thousands more police on the streets under its “core mission” to tackle crime.

It could point to the transparency of the deflection by the Tories, or the futility of their plan, but instead it leans into their narrative. As such we end up with Keir Starmer talking about “fighting the virus that is anti-social behaviour: fly-tipping, off-road biking in rural areas, drugs” with new "Respect orders".

He also solemnly added: “There’s a family in my constituency – every night cannabis smoke creeps in from the street outside into their children’s bedroom – aged four and six. That’s not low level – it’s ruining their lives.”

All problems are relative, but if occasional cannabis smoke can ruin your life, your life is either already ruined or so good that you have no understanding of the challenges the rest of us face.

At UNJUST we are working towards the equitable decriminalisation of cannabis. We need a reform that sees criminal records expunged, access to legal markets for Black communities, and revenues from the new industry being channelled back to communities that have been harmed by prohibition.

The government is looking to stoke division to mask its failures and cling to power. It sees a nation that’s bitter and broken and looking for someone to blame.

Labour should be painting a picture of a fairer, freer, safer society where laws are not based on fear, moralising and isolation but on evidence, acceptance, and a desire to protect the public.

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