Time for Labour to sober up?
Labour made a mistake in opposing minimum pricing of alcohol in the last parliament, says DUNCAN HOTHERSALL
Few Scottish politicians would have the brass neck to announce that they intend to tackle alcohol and sectarianism (“booze and bigotry”) – problems that have beset our country for many decades – in the course of a five year parliament. That Alex Salmond did so is testament to the breadth of his ambition, if also indicative of his monumental hubris. Politicians, of course, cannot directly solve social problems like these. They can merely put in place imperfect frameworks which may enable them to be addressed by others, and that is almost always a long and difficult process. But a clear statement of that ambition is welcome.
I understand why Scottish Labour found ourselves opposing minimum pricing for alcohol in the last parliament. It’s an economic policy which hits the poorest hardest; it introduces a new kind of tax, the revenues of which go to the industry doing the harm rather than to the Exchequer; and it is indiscriminate in punishing alcohol abusers alongside those who treat drink sensibly.
Nonetheless it was the wrong decision. Not least among the reasons why is that it was a popular policy among voters. The Scottish electorate, ever more sophisticated than we allow ourselves to believe, are not looking for perfect policies on alcohol harm reduction. They are looking for steps in the right direction, and minimum pricing is a step in the right direction.
The statistics are arresting. Alcohol is a contributory factor in 1 in every 20 deaths in Scotland. Half of Scottish prisoners admit to having been drunk at the time of their offence. An estimated 65,000 children in Scotland live with a parent with an alcohol problem.
Most shocking of all for me: enough alcohol is sold in Scotland to enable every person over the age of 16 to exceed sensible drinking guidelines every single week.
Labour has taken strong action on harm reduction in the past. We can be proud of the effective advertising campaigns, sensible licensing law changes and major funding for counselling and treatment brought in by past Labour governments. But we must also face up the fact that Scotland’s alcohol problem has got worse, not better, and it’s now time to take some harder decisions.
Key to the issue of minimum pricing is the evidence from around the world that there is a clear relationship between affordability and consumption. For a significant portion of consumers, price defines the quantity they drink. And if we increase that price, we can reduce harm, save lives, reduce NHS costs and reduce crime.
Yes, it will have a disproportionate effect on the poorest, and unfairly treat everyone as an alcohol abuser even if most of us are sensible in our drinking. But in my view these are prices worth paying to try to reverse the social rot which alcohol represents in this country.
Labour should support minimum pricing for alcohol in Scotland.
Duncan Hothersall is a Labour Party member and was the founding chair of Pride Scotland as well as a founding director of the Equality Network. Follow Duncan on Twitter at @dhothersall.