If Labour can't say what it thinks now, when can it?

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The Independent Online
WHEN I was at university in the 1970s, soft drugs were as routine a part of college life as lectures and rent strikes. I read Virgil during a sit-in and worried more about the tobacco in the occasional joint I shared with friends than its marijuana contents. When I told my impeccably liberal father what I'd been doing, he hit the roof. I calmed him down by pointing out that I knew no one who had progressed from cannabis to heroin and that alcohol binges were more of a problem than people who sat in their rooms smoking dope and listening to Santana.

One of the reasons I was astonished by my father's response was the fact that he smoked heavily himself. Ignoring my pleas to cut down, he died from secondary brain tumours after first having a cancerous lung removed. I've also observed the effects of heavy drinking at fairly close range and neither experience leads me to think that cigarettes and alcohol should be banned. But I'm astounded by the fog of hysteria and hypocrisy which descends as soon as someone makes even the most tentative suggestion about legalising cannabis. All Clare Short said last Sunday was that the drug is regarded as "relatively harmless" compared to alcohol and it might be time for a Royal Commission to look at the question again.

Judging by the fuss that followed anyone would think she had advocated eating babies. A caller to Nick Ross's Radio 4 phone-in programme on Tuesday demanded to know whether Short had children, as though the mothers of Britain were forming an embattled line against an army of pushers led by the unfeeling Ms Short; she was carpeted by Tony Blair and publicly rebuked by Jack Straw, whose automatic recoil from anything resembling debate can be utterly relied upon. Thus cannabis joins a growing list of subjects which cannot be raised at Westminster - a victim of the banal and fearful politics of taboo.

LABOUR's defence is that remarks like Short's are a gift to the tabloids. But this is not wholly convincing, given Labour's staggering lead over the Conservatives in Friday's Gallup poll in the Daily Telegraph. If you cannot raise contentious issues when you are nearly 40 points ahead, when can you do it?

Freud wrote a paper in 1917, in which he made some observations on the psychological mechanisms that lie behind the formation of a taboo: primitive man "institutes a taboo where he fears some danger" and is not always able to separate real dangers from imaginary ones. This is because he is afraid of something inside himself - projecting "his own internal impulses of hostility on to the external world". What I am suggesting is that the refusal of New Labour to debate awkward issues is as much an admission of intellectual weakness as any tactical reticence caused by the fear of a few days' bad press.

Stealing the Tories' clothes on crime, which is what Labour's sloganising amounts to, places the party in the impossible position of trying to tackle a complex and controversial subject from a starting-point of populist right-wing rhetoric. On no subject, though, is Labour more vulnerable than tax: the truly dreadful state of the British economy is not the party's fault but the shadow treasury ministers must be aware of the terrifyingly tight corner in which an incoming Labour government will find itself. A euphoric electorate, buoyed up by the demise of a spiteful, corrupt Conservative administration, will demand dramatic improvements in the NHS, education, state benefits - and who is going to fund them?

THE DISMAL economic facts are readily available. Nearly 26 million people pay income tax, which sounds a promising number until you look at what they actually earn. In the current tax year, the Inland Revenue estimates that just over 2 million of them will pay tax at the higher rate - something under 10 per cent of all tax payers. Two-thirds of these are bunched into the pounds 30,000-pounds 50,000 income bracket and, it seems reasonable to guess, paying sizeable mortgages.

When you look at the big earners Labour could tax without causing a public outcry, you are left with only half a million people who earn more than pounds 50,000 a year - fewer than 2 per cent of all taxpayers. Four-fifths of them fall into the pounds 50,000-pounds 100,000 range and they are currently paying an average of 29 per cent of their income in tax. Of course, they could pay more but can 2 per cent of the working population fund the changes most of us would like to see? And will a one-off windfall tax on the privatised utilities make up the difference? Either Gordon Brown is a financial genius or he will have to make some tough and unpopular decisions when he gets into office.

WHILE I'm on the subject of taboos, I might as well break one myself. Earlier this week - and I realise this sentence needs some explaining - I went to a movie with Peter Stringfellow. It was work, you understand, the preview of a terrible movie called Showgirls which tells the rags- to-bitches story of a dancer in Las Vegas. Afterwards, when Stringfellow and I were interviewed for a women's magazine, he said he was longing to meet the star and suggested that ordinary women get angry and envious when they see naked "girls" on screen.

On Thursday, Andrew Neil complained in the Daily Mail that Madonna had been ringing up men and asking them out. Describing her as "increasingly desperate", he assured readers that "I'm keeping my answering machine on to screen incoming calls".

What do these stories have in common? The fact that these middle-aged men, each of them leaking ad feminam remarks like a broken tap, actually think they're attractive. Is this the true meaning of the pathetic phallacy?