Letters: Age of the political beauty contest

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The Independent Online

Sir: The party conference season is already revealing that politics is turning into a beauty contest, with each contestant vying to be the best Tory party.

Gordon Brown has nailed his colours to the New Labour mast, which as we know means university tuition fees, and creeping privatisation of public services. The Lib Dem leadership too have proposed Tory style policies such as privatising the Post Office, which fortunately was defeated by rank-and-file members.

At the last general election, around 40 per cent of those registered to vote chose not to. Countless others didn't even get as far as putting their name on the electoral register. All of this points to a general disillusionment with politics - why bother voting when the choices on offer are so similar? Where is the party that will step forward and defend a social democratic vision of society: free education and health care for all, public services designed to foster community not merely to turn a profit, a safety-net welfare state for those who fall on hard times, and decent pensions and care in old age? That would be a party worth voting for.



Sir: It was a relief to see the social liberals see off the economic liberals in referring back Post Office privatisation and capping the EU Budget at Blackpool last week. Liberal Democrats must avoid repeating Tony Blair's move to the right in order to get elected.

The choice Liberal Democrats face is clear. Follow the Orange Book "modernisers" and take up every new policy fad churned out by those well-funded right-of-centre think-tanks. With three mainstream political parties embracing the free-market model, what choice for the electorate at the next general election? Or be bold and radical enough to develop the party into that principled liberal and left-of-centre movement that is capable of addressing the obscene social inequalities that exist within Britain and the global economy.

For too long the economic liberals within the party have been allowed to dominate the agenda. It is now up to social liberals to rework the philosophies of Keynes, Beveridge, Schumacher and Lloyd George and redefine what "left-of-centre" means in the 21st century. Neo-Thatcherism must be challenged in all its forms.



Sir: Surely the end of both major political parties' problems can be achieved if Gordon Brown takes over the Labour Party and Tony Blair takes over the Tory Party?



The horrific picture of Dorian Blair

Sir: The hectic rhetoric of Mr Blair's Labour Party conference speech must be set against the horrific daily carnage in Iraq which he and President Bush have set in motion. We are witnessing in the Prime Minister the personification of Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray - an outward mien and attitude untouched by the grim reality of an unnecessary conflict, a reality which demands apology and atonement, but which gets neither; a failure apparently condoned by a complaisant or manipulated conference.

We must now suffer for an indefinite period ahead a premiership in which most of us have no trust and which deserves none of the respect for which Mr Blair calls in others. The Prime Minister will deservedly go down in history as Dorian Blair.



Sir: Today's headlines (28 September) are perhaps the most depressing since the re-election of George Bush. The Prime Minister has decided to stay on as long as he wishes, whatever the promises he made or implied to other politicians or to the public.

This is the man who allegedly made a deal with his main rival to divide the period of Labour's reign between them, and then reneged on it. His return to office in May was secured largely owing to a widespread understanding that he would step down, sooner, we hoped, rather than later. He has taken it upon himself to decide how long he will be in office and who will succeed him.

In the interval he plays fast and loose with the truth, overrides all the intrinsic beliefs of the Labour Party, ignores Parliament and the public, employs fear to get rid of long-standing civil liberties, refuses to permit debate on the main issues facing the country (not only in Parliament but in the party conference), attacks the mass media when they are not in accord with his policies, and allies himself with perhaps the most ignorant leader on the planet, thereby making disastrous mistakes on the most serious issues we face, such as war and global warming.

The latest version of his ever-changing justification for joining the Americans in invading Iraq is that he wants to give democracy to that country. Perhaps the Iraqis should look at his version of democracy in this country before agreeing to emulate it .



Sir: I, like many, backed Tony Blair's decision to send troops to Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction. I, like many, lost faith in him when he did not resign over his subsequently discredited reason for going to war.

But I , like many, still voted for the Labour Party at the last election, believing that Mr Blair would soon be gone. Now he appears to have spun himself into remaining PM for the full term.

I, like many I suspect, will certainly not be voting for a Blair-led Labour Party at the next election.



Sir: The power struggle between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair has, for all its apparent disadvantages for Labour, sidelined the opposition parties and replaced democratic debate with a pseudo-debate merely about who will lead the Labour Party.

At a time when Britain is at war and there is real concern about the way ahead, our obsession with hints from "court insiders", whether politicians or journalists, as to who will be king of the political castle is seriously undermining our democratic tradition.



Sir: Can I have been watching the same Tony Blair at Labour's conference as your commentators? I saw a heavily made-up man confessing to a national decline in terms of violence, drunkenness, poor options for the poor etc, over which he has presided for the past eight years, and so superficial as to regard iPods and mobile phones as the symbols of his brave new world.



When the mentally ill commit crimes

Sir: The argument used by Doctors Baker and Brown to support their contention (Letter, 27 September) that the mentally ill should not be prosecuted for criminal offences they may commit is simplistic and potentially dangerous.

If Christopher Clunis had been prosecuted for any of the serious offences he committed before killing Jonathan Zito, that tragic event might never have happened. Of course, he should have received much better psychiatric care than he did, but that is a separate issue. In my experience as a psychiatric social worker, the police are often very reluctant to arrest and charge patients in hospital who have committed quite serious offences - usually of assault against fellow-patients - which has meant that inner-city acute psychiatric wards these days are often lawless and frightening places.

Their view of people with a diagnosis of mental illness is also a rather patronising one since it seems to imply that having such an illness necessarily means your capacity and ability to act responsibly and within the law are impaired. Most people who have such a diagnosis, their symptoms apart, are no different from those who don't: that is to say, they may be law-abiding or anti-social, peaceable or aggressive and so on. Sometimes they may commit offences as a direct consequence of their illness - for example, they are hearing voices telling them to do so - but generally this is not the case.

If anyone with a mental illness commits an offence, surely it is up to the Crown Prosecution Service and courts to decide on the extent to which they are responsible for doing so and how they should be dealt with, not the police or staff who are looking after them.



Asda, Wal-Mart and their workers

Sir: Johann Hari's piece about Asda and Wal-Mart (20 September) peddled myths and half-truths.

Asda has never discouraged our own people from joining unions: we've had unions since we opened for business 40 years ago. We have never stood in the way of colleagues joining a union and have worked for many years with union partners and will continue to do so. Wal-Mart's international operations include union relationships in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Germany.

Colleagues are not "fitted with electronic tags" that monitor them. In our distribution depots we have introduced a voice-picking headset system that simply helps colleagues to find the right products to pack on to our lorries.

Independent surveys time after time have named Asda as one of Britain's best places to work. Only this month we were named as Scotland's Best Employer. All these awards have been won after we became part of the Wal-Mart family.

Wal-Mart does not pay "poverty" wages in the US. The majority of Wal-Mart's hourly store associates in the United States work full-time. That is well above the 20-40 per cent typically found in the retail industry. Its average hourly wage for regular full-time associates in the US is $9.68 an hour, almost double the federal minimum wage.

Wal-Mart has some of the toughest supplier standards in retailing. It expects every supplier to comply with worker protections and regularly audits suppliers' factories. If it finds that any of our suppliers' factories are unwilling to correct problems, we end our relationship with them.



UK can lead the way to low-carbon future

Sir: Tony Blair will indeed "own the future" (Simon Carr, 28 September). He saw the challenge of climate change - into which Britain unwittingly led the world with the Industrial Revolution. He could engage the skills and imagination of the British people in showing the way to a low-carbon economy - which requires changes in attitudes, not just technology. In his final term, with the climate at tipping point, he could exercise visionary leadership. If he doesn't, it will be the biggest missed opportunity in the history of the planet.



Sir: Jerome Prior (letter, 28 September) writes, in relation to global warming: "The biggest question that future politicians will have to answer is: how do we make the 'don't-cares' care and, if they still don't, what are we entitled to force them to do?" It's not a question for future politicians, but for current politicians.



Sir: It is surely time for Messrs Bush and Blair to declare a war on weather.



Simpler spelling is inevitable

Sir: Proposals for improvements to English spelling (letters; 15, 17 September) generally fail so completely that academic phoneticians usually avoid getting caught up in schemes for reform. I break ranks to point out the inevitability of incremental change.

The main source of simplified spelling for the last two hundred years is America, especially through Noah Webster's zeal for a distinct American cultural identity: we have already accepted, for example, his public, jail, cider, siren, cipher, siphon, toilet, quartet, connection, inflection, reflection, and ether. Their predecessors, publick, gaol, cyder, syren, cypher, syphon, toilette, quartette, connexion, inflexion, reflexion, aether, once standard in England, are now quaint archaisms.

In American publications we accept: favor, theater, center, plow, ax, somber, tire (of a wheel), harbor, gray, traveler, jeweler, checkered, judgment and many others. It is mainly nationalistic stubbornness that makes us resist simpler and in many instances etymologically correct forms, and we impose an unnecessary burden on younger readers by insisting on our parochial forms. We should admit the inevitable and adopt the newer spellings as an international English standard. If newspaper editors and publishers agree, the change could be effected almost immediately, with little trouble.



Uranium tests

Sir: It is good the US troops are being tested for depleted uranium. What about the Iraqi people who have to live with it daily?



No improvement

Sir: In the 1960s I was chairman of the Mid Oxfordshire Association for the Improvement of State Education, whose declared aim was "to make state schools so good that no one would want to send their children to any other". We were part of a much wider movement. Whatever happened to it? Died of despair, I suppose.



Snail mail

Sir: Could this be a record ? I sent a Christmas postcard in November 1991 from Bethlehem, Israel, to an old friend in Hampshire. It arrived in mint condition at its destination this week. Sadly my friend never saw it as he died in April of this year. The Post Office exhortation to post early for Christmas now has an added significance for me.



Vibrant Seventies

Sir: Deborah Orr (Opinion, 28 September) is right to remind us that the Seventies weren't all that bad. This was the time in which workers challenged the exploitative practices of their employers, when the big issues of the day were being debated in our universities and when Fulham reached the FA Cup final. Let us hope then for a speedy return to the vibrancy of the 1970s.



A matter of faith

Sir: The Rev Ian Paisley wants to see photographic evidence as proof of IRA weapons decommissioning. Are we to assume that he possesses a photograph of God?