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.

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27 thoughts on “Time for Labour to sober up?

  1. Just because it’s the only suggestion on the table does not mean that we must support it. A friend of Mine in the party recently pointed out that countries Like Norway dont have the same problems as us and that is due to the way they sell alcohol. They dont have pubs you can only drink with a meal when you are out. and the suppermarkets dont sell drink. All the places that sell Alcohol are run by the government and who is buying is restricted as prove of age is required and pricing is controlled so no cheap deals. Money made from Alcohol sales could go straight into the NHS.

    1. Norwegians do an lot more home brewing to get around their government restrictions and lack of outlets selling alcohol the problem in the UK is the gap between the richest in society and the poorest which has been ever widening for decades even under Labour.

    2. Many Norwegians cross over the border to buy alcohol in Sweden. I have friends who live In Norway that do their monthly shopping in Swedish supermarkets as everything is cheaper than in Norway. I am in favour of the minimum pricing though as many on low incomes in my area do buy an awful lot of cheap cider etc and there is a serious problem with underage drinkers gathering in local parks and vandalism is an issue as a result.

    3. Not sure what you’re including in “countries like Norway”, but one of the main methodologies used in Scandic countries to counteract their history of chronic alcohol dependency problems is to make the price of alcohol far higher by charging huge taxes and duties. The state monopoly on off-sales is designed to facilitate that. So in reality you’re arguing for a harsher version of the same thing.

      Do you seriously want to shut down every pub in Scotland overnight? That’s what I would call a very brave policy!

        1. Sorry, I thought you were suggesting we follow your description of the Scandic model of state control and high prices, which is like minimum pricing plus.

          If that isn’t what you’re saying then I apologise, and must ask: what policy do you think we should adopt?

  2. At 45p per unit a standard 440ml can of 5% beer costs 99p, a bottle of spirits costs £12.60, a 275ml bottle of 5% beer costs 62p and a 330ml bottle of 5% beer costs 74p.

    Unless you’re buying the cheapest of the cheap in the supermarket minimum pricing won’t have any effect on the prices you pay and if you drink in a pub the prices won’t change at all. Minimum pricing is there to stop the sale of rotgut ciders which are the preferred choice of the problem drinker. Tesco sells 2 litres of 7.5% Diamond White at £3.49 which in alcohol terms is equivalent to a 51p can of beer or how about their 2 litre bottle of Orchard Mill Cider at 5% which sells for £1.95 which in alcohol terms is equivalent to a 43p can of beer. Minimum pricing would put these prices up to £6.75 and £4.50 respectively. They would be priced just the same as a standard beer.

    It’s not a policy which hits the poor and it certainly does not punish those who drink sensibly and the whole point is that sales of the cheapest drink drop which balances out or even reduces the profits of the supermarkets. Labour was willing to put the health of Scots at risk just to score a political point and I hope that Labour brings up the dangerous menace of caffeine again in this parliament just to be consistent

      1. It wouldn’t affect Buckfast at all but it isn’t aimed at Buckfast which is quite an expensive drink.

        The minimum price would need to go above 62p a unit to raise the price of Buckfast above its selling price of about £6.95 a bottle.

        1. Exactly my point – and Buckfast seems to be the drink that is demonised most. Its not about minimum pricing, although that has a part to play in any overall strategy to combat the alcohol problem.

          1. John:

            Buckfast accounts for only about 0.5% of all alcohol consumption in Scotland and the majority of it is consumed in what is described as the, “Buckfast Triangle”, around Airdrie, Coatbridge and Cumbernauld.

            The problem with Buckfast consumption is separate from the problem of reducing overall alcohol consumption in the rest of Scotland which is the aim of minimum pricing. The simplest solution for Buckfast would be to ban it from off-sales in the localised areas affected most.

          2. I’d like to think you’re right, but after having some anti-social behavour outside our flat, I was unsurprised to find an empty bottle of Buckfast under the tree the next morning.

            If we demonise something, it becomes desirable. This (alcoholism) is a general effect across Scottish culture, and it may require radical changes to aspects of traditional Scottish culture that would be brave for one party to tackle on its own. This needs a cross-party approach – not a rush job bill to push through something that the SNP was frustrated on in the last session. Hopefuly Alex Salmonds speech talking about not having amonopoly on wisdom indicates this.

  3. Prohibition did not work minimum pricing will not either for the same reasons
    law cannot regulate morality and cheaper alcohol will flood across the border
    and make many crims very rich( still the cash they make they will invest in even bigger criminal activity)

    1. For a start I don’t believe the margins will be sufficient to support any significant scale of undercutting by bringing in booze from England, and on top of that I think it’s safe to anticipate that the rest of the UK will be bringing in a floor pricing duty which will make the discrepancy disappear.

      I agree with you that prohibition didn’t work, but this is really nothing like prohibition.

  4. Minimum pricing is not a magic bullet, nobody ever said it was. But it is a start and it is strongly supported by health professionals as well as the police etc.

    My memory of the development of this policy is that initially Labour were quite positive, I think Cathy Jamieson was the health spokesperson at the time and I am sure she was quite positive initially.

    Re the point about it adding to supermarket profits. In the long term if that happens then the policy won’t be working. Because the aim is to reduce the overall amount of alcohol that is bought and consumed and most of it is bought in supermarkets.

    It’s too easy in my view to say that it is only a minority of people who abuse alcohol and that therefore minimum pricing will punish responsible drinkers. Look at the statistic that Duncan gave – and in fact the amount of alcohol sold is enough for every person over the age of 16 to exceed safe MALE drinking limits every single week of the year so that is even worse.

    I don’t think we can just cordon off a minority of “irresponsible” drinkers and say it is all down to them. These people are actually a symptom of a wider problem, they don’t exist in isolation.

    And by the way I am not a po-faced teatotaller. I like a drink. Indeed I like to get drunk now and then and have no intention of stopping doing that. I think it is perfectly OK to get drunk now and then – it’s the culture that has developed of doing it much more frequently that is the problem. I know I will sound like Mary Whitehouse saying this but it does set a dreadful example to the younger generation and we do owe it to them to try and get a grip on things.

    Minimum pricing will go through the Parliament now anyway, nothing can stop it, but it would be good if there could be agreement on it.

    1. you say it is supported by health professionals and Police as if they are Experts on how to solve this. They are not. I believe there must be an alternative given by the Labour Party. Not for any Tribal Reason but becase I dont believe this policy will work.

    2. The culture problem is much wider, and I agree that Minimum pricing, on its own wont work. From what I have seen, it IS being treated as a magic bullet by SNP politicians. I would like to see a much wider range of policies in a white paper, including work on helping people recover from alcoholism.

      For an example of the cultural issue, just look at the reaction in Scotland when a alcohol promotion at Tesco was going through the tills wrong the other week.

      1. Nobody says it is a magic bullet. But you use the phrase “the culture problem” and how often do we hear politicians saying we have to change the culture of alcohol yadda yadda.

        It is pretty difficult for politicians to change a culture – especially when other politicians say we won’t support minimum pricing because it would apply to all drinkers.

        Yeah, it’s meant to. There is no chance of having any impact on Scotland’s drinking culture unless we have policies designed for the whole population.

        Coralling problem drinkers and blaming the famous small minority for a whole nation’s problematic attitude to alcohol is the way to maintain the alcohol culture we have, not to challenge it, never mind change it.

        1. Except I’ve seen SNP politicians on the TV saying that they’re going to introduce minimum pricing and it will solve the problem. My point is that you need to tackle the wider problem – yes its difficult, but isnt that why we pay the politicians for – to take the difficult decisions?

          At no point did I suggest that we blame the small minority for a whole nations problem – in fact quite the opposite. The tesco story, in case you didnt see it, involved quite sensible (middle class?) people driving to their local branch to get some cheap booze due to a till error. Minimum pricing wouldnt have stopped that – it was a mistake at the till – what was the problem was the culture.

          1. Name me one single SNP politician who has said that. Everyone is very well aware that minimum pricing is just one part of what needs to be a much wider solution. But what it would do is remove the supply of ultra-cheap booze which is one of the reasons that most alcohol is now purchased in retail settings and drunk in the home instead of purchased and drunk on licensed premises.

          2. I’ve seen both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon claim that Scotlands drink problem “can only be solved by minimum pricing”. I think thats basically saying its a magic bullet.

            I think you need to do something about the price of booze – both to make it more expensive, but also to prevent promotions (even where these do not breach a minimum price).

          3. “I’ve seen both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon claim that Scotlands drink problem “can only be solved by minimum pricing”.”

            I know from prior experience that this isn’t your strongest suit, John, but I’m going to have to ask you for a specific sourced citation for that claim, or it’s just going to be filed alongside “The SNP opposed the minimum wage”.

  5. There are no pubs in Norway and you can only drink with a meal? Factually incorrect. There are plenty of pubs in Oslo.

    I’m open to raising the price of alcohol but let the extra income go to the treasury not the retailers

    1. You are missing the whole point of raising the price of drink. The purpose is to reduce the amount of alcohol that is bought, not to generate increased revenues.

  6. I’ve seen both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon claim that Scotlands drink problem “can only be solved by minimum pricing”. I think thats basically saying its a magic bullet.

    Sorry but that is just not the case. Perhaps you have heard them saying that efforts to tackle alcohol abuse will be undermined by a refusal to introduce minimum pricing but that is emphatically not the same as saying that it is a magic bullet. It is an essential part of a strategy but not the whole strategy.

  7. Couldn’t Scottish Labour develop a policy of it’s own to tackle alcoholism and binge drinking? Or a policy on anything at all of relevance to Scotland, for that matter? Just once?

    If the party had it’s own policies, rather than taking those of other parties [i]after[/i] it has claimed they are ridiculous and unworkable, it might regain some of it’s lost voters.

    I was a Labour voter myself until the early 90s, so I know the party can achieve great things if it tries. But first it has to try.

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