Johann Hari: The terrible price of driving out Labour

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The Independent Online

The people who have been discussing the plummeting poll figures for Labour as if it is all just an elaborate Westminster horse race as if the only issues are Gordon Brown's shaking hand, and David Cameron's sugared soundbites should be ashamed. If Labour loses to the Tories, real people in the real world will pay. The evidence is now in: the victims will include some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.

Regular readers will know that I have a thousand and one severe criticisms of the current government. But for today, I want to look at four groups for whom if you follow through the practical policy implications a Labour loss to Cameron would be a tragedy.

Victims No 1: Chronic drug addicts. In this country today, 400,000 people are given a methadone or heroin script every day by doctors. Most of them are survivors of childhood neglect or abuse, who sank into poverty, prostitution or homelessness when they were using a street supply. But why just hand them the drug? Opiates are so powerfully addictive that once you become hooked, rehab rarely works, alas: even the best rehab centres in the world have a mere 20 per cent success rate of keeping addicts clean. So you can either leave the other 80 per cent on the street selling their bodies, burgling houses and dying in shop doorways or you can give them a safe script and help them slowly rebuild their lives. I have several friends who are given regular meth and heroin prescriptions who are now holding down good jobs and living again.

The Tories are committed to stripping away all these prescriptions, as an urgent matter of policy. Iain Duncan Smith's policy review announced to the horror of all the frontline charities that work with drug addicts that they would end "methadone madness" and adopt a zero-prescription policy. Instead, they will offer chronic addicts the directions to the nearest support group and a plate of cold turkey. His report was shockingly sociologically illiterate: the best "evidence" he could marshal was to hand over a third of the report to the ramblings of a school headmistress who has no expertise whatever in the field.

Yet the Shadow Home Secretary David Davis has picked these assertions as official policy, and begun jibing at the government for "trying to manage drug addiction" rather than pursuing the utopian and scientifically impossible goal of "ending it". When these prescriptions are cut off by Cameron's government, you will not see chronic addicts suddenly going clean. No. As Danny Kushlick of the drug reform charity Transform explains: "If the Tories acted on their current rhetoric, what would actually happen is clear. You would see a huge increase in street heroin use, and everything that goes with that burglary, shoplifting, prostitution, homelessness. You would see a huge rise in HIV and Hepatitis C as the level of injecting went up. It would be a public health and crime disaster, in place of harm reduction."

Victims No 2: The poorest students. It used to be that large numbers of kids from poor backgrounds couldn't stay on at school past 16, just because they didn't have the money. I know, because it happened to both my parents forced out of education at 15 - and all four of my grandparents, made to quit at 14. Their families needed them to get out and earn money; studying was an unaffordable luxury. So even though they were all intelligent people, their education was abruptly terminated, and as a result they never really achieved their potential in life.

Three years ago, the Labour government introduced a policy to stop this happening. If your parents earn less than 25,000 a year, you are now given a 40-a-week Educational Maintenance Allowance to stay on at school, with an annual bonus of 500 if you get good grades. It may not sound like much, but it's a lot to a skint student, and it is the reason for the spike in students staying on. I recently went to speak at my old sixth-form college and met keen students who thanks to this policy were now able to study at all.

There were even more who now didn't have to take laborious jobs on weeknights (and therefore fall behind the rich kids) just to be able to go out at the weekend. Even with the extension of the school-leaving age to 18, this policy will still be vital: many of the poorest students will still be pressured to take the bare-minimum one-day-a-week option. The Tories will end Educational Maintenance Allowances. Their front bench mocks them as "a bribe".

Victims No 3: Part-time workers. In 1998, the Labour government signed the European Social Charter. This gives part-time workers a package of basic rights to parental leave when they have a baby, to proper sick pay, and to not be arbitrarily sacked. Most of the people enjoying these rights are women at the bottom of the pay scale, with nearly 40 per cent of them on the minimum wage.

David Cameron says it is one of his "highest priorities" to pull out of the Charter, and therefore end these rights. The effect? Women working part-time will lose big sums of money after giving birth, or when they are ill. It will be much easier to sack them. Their lives will become more stressful still.

Victims No 4: Single parents. It is now an official Tory policy to punish single parents fiscally. Under a Cameron government, money will be redistributed through the tax system from (poorer) single parents to (wealthier) married couples, to "reward" the married. And worse still Cameron has pledged to adopt Wisconsin-style welfare reform. As I recently noted, it is an integral part of this programme to force single mothers to abandon their babies at three months and go out to full-time work, often hours away by public transport.

The effect on these babies is clear. As Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the heroic founder of the charity Kids Company, has warned: to suddenly rupture a baby's relationship with its primary care-giver at three months especially when the mother doesn't want to has a terrible effect on his or her psychological development. Even years later, as adults, babies left in this way have less self-control, fewer verbal skills and lower self-esteem. Cameron was happy to embrace Batmanghelidjh on the Tory party conference platform for PR points, but he ignores the evidence her work has uncovered.

These are the practical issues at stake if Labour continues to ebb in the opinion polls. How much more important are they than when precisely Jon Mendelsohn knew that some weirdo was giving money to Labour under different names the question that has been riveting the process-obsessed Nick Robinson school of politics for weeks? And how much more important are all these real people chronic drug addicts, poor students, part-time workers, single mums than the fatuous, foolish questions our pundits are incessantly asking about Gordon Brown's personality?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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