24 August 2020

Shaun Bailey’s drug testing plan will get him nowhere in London


In 2008, Boris Johnson defied expectations in being elected London’s major. And while policing was a significant plank of his electoral pitch, his message was also one of optimism about London and about Londoners. With characteristic charm and charisma, Boris built a winning campaign based both on making London safer, and on exciting, popular policies. As David Cameron once said, a great part of Boris’ success is in “making people feel good about themselves”.

It’s a shame, then, that current Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey seems to have understood only the former and not the latter. His recently announced ‘Drugs Testing Charter’ calls for firms with over 250 employees to regularly and randomly test them for narcotics, with the intention of curbing middle class drug use.

This proposal smacks of the worst kind of conservatism; reactionary, invasive and illiberal. It treats anyone and everyone working in one of those firms as a potential criminal.

The problem here is that in doubling down on being the candidate of traditional law and order, Bailey has committed to a policy that neither works nor has popular support. The proposal is wrong in both principle and practice.  The thinking here is that middle class drug use constitutes a significant portion of gang funding, and it is only through punishing demand that money feeding gang activity can be taken away. But attempting to defeat the criminality of the supply side in this way has proven singularly ineffective wherever it has been applied.

The way to tackle crime in London isn’t through forcing employers to snitch on their employees, but through removing the underground criminal networks that thrive on the illegal drugs market. The only way to achieve that is through comprehensive drug policy reform which removes the capacity and incentives for illegal drug dealing. A legalised, regulated market would be a far more effective strategy for driving street dealers out of existence and curbing criminal turf wars than the kind of authoritarian, punitive approach advocated by Bailey.

Beyond being the wrong approach to tackling crime, this proposal would create even more time-consuming administration for businesses when they least need it. The larger, white collar firms that this policy is aimed at have, given the nature of their operations, weathered the lockdown well through working from home. But they will still be operating in uncertain conditions, looking to encourage employees to come back into the office and to avoid unnecessary expenses. As the candidate representing the party of business, asking firms to take on the cost, bureaucracy and hostile working environment of drug testing sends a decidedly mixed message.

To Bailey’s credit, he has been incisive and consistent in calling out Sadiq Khan’s lack of focus on employment, calling to protect jobs where possible but crucially to make it as easy as possible to get another one where it is not. He has also been strong on Khan’s poor handling of Crossrail and his constant deferral of responsibility to the Government. He risks undermining these potent attacks with a policy that feels completely out of step with Londoners’ priorities and needs.

The Tories are supposed to be the party of business and individualism. London both needs and deserves a mayor that understands both. Policies such as drug testing employees only bolster the impression that the Conservatives have, for the time being, given up on understanding London. There is a huge opportunity to present an optimistic vision for London to lead the way in recovering from the pandemic. Focusing on drug policy reform as the true solution to London crime, alongside business and job friendly policies could have been a winning pitch. Sadly, it is now clear Shaun Bailey won’t be the man to make it.

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John Macdonald is Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.