Alliance with tyrant of Uzbekistan, Level election playing field and others

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We will pay for our alliance with the tyrant of Uzbekistan

We will pay for our alliance with the tyrant of Uzbekistan

Sir: We are all accustomed to weasel words from our politicians, but surely few can be as nauseating as those of our Foreign Secretary's simpering and half-hearted condemnation of the recent massacre in Andijan. This is the same Foreign Secretary, let us remember, who sacked our previous ambassador to Uzbekistan for having the temerity to suggest that our esteemed ally's commitment to human rights was somewhat less than total.

It would seem that Mr Karimov's principal offence in the eyes of the Government was to conduct a public massacre, thus obliging even Jack Straw to say something. If only he had stuck to boiling people alive, out of sight, out of mind, we could have carried on our friendly relationship. Uzbekistan, we are told, is a valued ally in the fight against terrorism, principally because they allowed the USA use their territory to attack Afghanistan, in order to remove the brutal and repressive regime there. Sorry, bear with me a moment while I try to stop laughing.

There are few better ways to drive people into the arms of fanatical terrorist groups than to commit this type of atrocity against unarmed civilians. Bloody Sunday was the IRA's best-ever recruiting event; and the massacre in Andijan will undoubtedly swell the ranks of the very Islamic groups against whom it was supposedly directed. A focus of the hatred is likely to be the infidel western troops and airmen stationed on their territory with the authorities' blessing. Much the same happened in 1970s Iran, where the toppling of the Shah's brutal rule led to a staunchly anti-western Islamic regime.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. As long as we keep associating with monstrous tyrants like Karimov, we will always have reason to fear the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia.

JOHN SHEPHERD

COCKERMOUTH, CUMBRIA

Level the election playing field

Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith is right to point out that boundary changes are needed in order to ensure that the voting system is fair to all (Opinion, 16 May) but such changes alone will not ensure that there is a level playing field.

With both unequal boundaries and an unfair voting system, the Conservatives polled only 3 per cent fewer votes but 159 fewer seats than Labour. Forty-two thousand votes are needed to elect a Conservative MP but only 28,000 to elect a Labour MP (and 98,000 to elect a Lib Dem).

Our own study shows that the boundary review which will come into effect before the next General Election will do little to change the fundamentally unfair apportionment of the seats in the House of Commons. It is likely that Labour would win five fewer seats (based on 2005 voting patterns) and the Conservatives would gain seven. Instead of a Labour majority of 66, we would see a Labour have an overall majority of 52.

The real reasons for the bias in the system are differential turnout, inefficient vote distribution and tactical voting. It is not possible to adequately solve these whilst persisting with the first-past-the-post voting system. A change to a system of proportional representation using multi-member constituencies is therefore required. We would recommend the single transferable vote (STV) system, which retains local MPs and gives electors maximum choice.

ALEX FOLKES

PRESS AND CAMPAIGNS OFFICER ELECTORAL REFORM SOCIETY LONDON SE1

Sir: Several of your correspondents seem to believe that all forms of PR would undermine the link between voters and their representative. This is clearly true of some systems but STV in multi-member constituencies would often enhance such links.

I have taken part in national and local elections for 55 years, sometimes standing as candidate for local government but more usually working for other candidates. In that time I have never been represented in any part of the country or at any level of government by a person of my choice: they have invariably been Conservatives although I have never voted for one.

Although most MPs and councillors doubtless try to represent all their constituents one sometimes wishes to approach a member sympathetic to one's views without looking for a pretext to address a member for another constituency. If Wiltshire, for example, formed one multi-member constituency I would undoubtedly have at least one MP of my own persuasion within the constituency group and for me, and perhaps many others, the link would have far more substance.

B RYDZ

CORSHAM, WILTSHIRE

Sir: You report (17 May) that supporters of electoral reform are considering whether to back a "compromise" that would fall short of full-scale PR - namely the alternative vote (AV). Not only is AV not "full-scale" PR: it is not PR at all. I therefore hope that leading campaigners for reform will stick to their guns and come out firmly against this "compromise".

AV is fine for the election of individuals such as presidents and mayors. For general elections however where representation at Westminster should fairly reflect national opinion it is not only not an improvement on first-past-the-post but can be even more grossly unfair. Some recent figures suggest that had the 1997 election been conducted under AV, Labour's majority would have been much greater even than the absurd figure achieved under the FPTP lottery.

Thus it is not surprising that AV finds favour with Peter Hain and other tribalists in the Labour Party. Once it was adopted it would be represented as "electoral reform" and could perhaps be even more difficult to replace by PR than FPTP itself.

JOE PATTERSON

LONDON SE19

Sir: Those in favour of the current electoral system (Letters, 12 May) say that, first, it preserves the constituency link, and encourages MPs to stand up for their locality against the party machine, and, second, that it means that one party - usually the least unpopular - gets to implement its manifesto without the need for politicking after the election. These two arguments are mutually exclusive.

PATRICK MORROW

CAMBRIDGE

Private schools for the many

Sir: "We still appear to think that the best way to improve public services is to offer people an escape route from them," writes the Tory MP John Bercow in a critique of his party's election platform (10 May). "This is a counsel of despair. Whether in health or in education, a government can subsidise only a minority to go private. Meanwhile, the majority understandably concludes that the party has given up on them."

But the increasing popularity of various education voucher schemes in the United States suggests that this is not the case. The percentage of parents who sent their children to an assigned public school declined from 80 per cent in 1993 to 76 per cent in 1999 and the trend is expected to continue. It is quite likely that in years to come most American children will be privately educated.

In a 2002 study of New York City voucher recipients, researchers found that standardised reading and maths test scores for black children who had used the vouchers (worth up to $1,400 each year) to attend private schools for three years were 9.2 per cent higher than those of their black peers who did not attend a private school.

Vouchers have also stimulated improvements in the state sector. In Florida, where vouchers are offered to students in chronically failing schools, a study has found state schools facing the competition of vouchers made the greatest improvements.

The Conservatives should pledge to make independent schools affordable for the many and not just the few.

HARRY PHIBBS

LONDON W12

Branded a felon for refusing to fight

Sir: Your powerful feature on those who face punishment for attempting to leave the US military on conscientious grounds bore out many of the circumstances of my husband's case ("The deserters", 16 May).

My husband, Abdullah William Webster, a sergeant in the US Army, refused to fight in Iraq on conscientious grounds. As a professional soldier with a distinguished 20-year career, he believed that if he went through established army channels his principled position would be meet with a degree of sympathy. The opposite occurred. The US Army pursued Abdullah. He was court-martialled and imprisoned for 11 months. He was released only two weeks ago. On top of this and painful separation from his family, he now stands to lose his pension and has been branded a convicted "felon".

Amnesty International saw Abdullah as a prisoner of conscience. Why is the US Army incapable of accepting that soldiers are entitled to have minds of their own?

SUE WEBSTER

BIRMINGHAM

Despite frustrations, cycling is safer

Sir: I was dismayed by John Miller's decision to give up cycling for his car ("Two wheels deadly", 16 May). I understand his frustrations with London's traffic and poor facilities and routes for cyclists - I cycle to work less than I would like because I find it so stressful.

But I would urge him not to give up, and I would dispute his claim that things are getting worse for cyclists. There has been a steady increase in numbers in recent years, which can only help to make motorists more aware of us. There are also some excellent new cycle routes, whatever he says about Waltham Forest. In general I do genuinely feel safer now than I did a few years ago.

I don't see why getting into a car is the answer. It may seem safer, but it won't add any years to his life (regular cycling is thought to add around 10 years on average). And cars can be more stressful, simply because they're harder to manoeuvre and to get out of trouble once you get into it. And I shall be glad to demonstrate this to Mr Miller the next time I speed past him on the inside as he sits fuming in a traffic jam.

ROBERT GREENALL

LONDON N4

Hoodie threat to our way of life

Sir: Last year it was al-Qa'ida; now it is young people's hats that are destroying our way of life. Politicians always attack youth culture when they have run out of ideas. Blair's guff about respect is absurd, as is his pretence not to know the cause of urban hooliganism - it's alcohol, stupid.

Having emptied town centres by permitting too many out-of-town shops, local authorities have revived them with an equally imprudent excess of boozing licences. Astonishingly, the drinkers get drunk, and violence and vandalism ensue. Tooting Broadway is one area that has benefited from this manifestation of progress. On New Year's Day this year it looked as if it had been bombed.

ARAN LEWIS

LONDON SW17

Sir: I confess that in the last month I have frequently worn a hooded sweatshirt in public. The garment was acquired during my time training at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and represents the squadron I was assigned to during my time there.

I am glad that the advertising of such reprehensible institutions will be stamped out before it causes an outbreak of anti-social behaviour.

SIMON INGRAM

HAXBY, YORK

Sir: This weekend, in atrocious weather, 2,500 teenagers from all parts of the UK (most very probably wearing hoodies) will have trudged between 35 and 55 miles across Dartmoor in the annual Ten Tors event. However, they receive little or no cover from the national media.

HAZEL LEGG

DAWLISH, DEVON

Sir: It is puzzling that Hazel Blears wishes to introduce a compulsory dress code for miscreants. Judging by Bluewater's attempts to ban "hoodies" and baseball caps I thought they already had one.

GORDON MUIR

REIGATE, SURREY

Sir: Banning hoodies and baseball caps is not the way to stop teenagers wearing them: that's only going to encourage them. The solution is for old people to adopt this mode of dress. Nothing could work faster.

Come to think of it, why stop at hoodies? Think how comfortable those baggy, dropped-down trousers would be for the elderly.

JILL BUSS

ALRESFORD, HAMPSHIRE

Sir: Not only do I disagree with the Bluewater shopping centre's ban on hoods and baseball caps, but I find curmudgeonly Mr Prescott to be perhaps the most intimidating man in Britain. Can we ban him?

BENJAMIN HALEY

EDINBURGH

Ministry of Kindness

Sir: Following the key theme of the Queen's Speech, can we look forward to the creation of a new government department? The name "Department of Respect and Kindness in Society" springs to mind.

BEN MORGAN LUNDIE

BIRMINGHAM

Work and stress

Sir: You report (16 May) that work-related stress-induced mental illness has become a major social problem in Britain. The next day you report that Gordon Brown is resisting EU-instigated moves to shorten the working week. Mmm . . . .

JULIEN EVANS

CHESHAM, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

The logic of Sudoku

Sir: Now that you have people hooked on Sudoku to the extent that you include four puzzles each day, the time is right for you to rephrase your instructions ("There's no maths involved. You solve the puzzle with reasoning and logic."). This is a golden opportunity for you to point out that reasoning and logic are mathematical skills and that maths does not mean merely "doing sums". Solving Sudoku without using mathematical skills would be like solving a crossword without reading the clues: possible but very, very difficult.

MARK DAWES

CAMBRIDGE

Special concert

Sir: If only we had known that John Barker was planning a performance of Janacek's Sinfonietta for his girlfriend (report, 14 May). The Wolsey Orchestra (of which I am a member) performed that very piece, along with Bernstein's West Side Story and the Saxophone Concerto by Glazunov, in the Corn Exchange, Ipswich on Saturday. We could have saved him £100,000!

JAN ROWE

IPSWICH, SUFFOLK

Saving the planet

Sir: The energy crisis and the obesity crisis have the same one-word solution: treadmills.

ROBERT CANNING

BRIDGE OF EARN, PERTHSHIRE

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