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Thursday 28 May 2009
Letters: Campaign for democracy
A political system in need of a thorough overhaul
David Cameron and Boris Johnson seem to be grasping the initiative about new methods of government. Johnson says MPs at present are whipped to vote on legislation they have not even bothered to read or understand. There should now be a debate about our constitution, and models of other forms of government studied, such as Greek, Roman, Napoleonic and Arabic. For instance, perhaps no-confidence motions should be abolished, and there should be fixed terms of office, of say five years, and all motions put on free votes.
Perhaps blocks of MPs should be allowed to stay in office for only five-year periods, unless their performance is so outstanding that they are moved into ministerial positions. Perhaps the Lords should be much more democratic and representative, cleared of time-servers and inherited posts. Perhaps the very building of Pugin's fairy-gilded Gothic palace needs to be dragged into the 21st century. Perhaps the falseness of this pile is bad for common sense.
All this must take time to consider and could be a major part of the next parliament's programme. Until this happens, Members of Parliament will troop into the lobbies like sheep, bent only maintaining their perks and positions, rather than the dictates of their conscience.
Richard Foster (letters, 27 May) is correct: most party-list PR systems strengthen the grip of the party elites. Hence the need to consider introducing the Irish PR system of the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies of three to six MPs. This system enables voters to express and order their preferences for candidates within and across party lines, and would thus undermine the present powers of UK party elites in safe single-member seats to select or retain the local MP; it would therefore provide the mechanism Mr Foster seeks "to throw our particular rascal out".
It has the added advantages of demonstrating voters' own coalition preferences and antipathies, through their second and lower preferences, and – through much greater proportionality of local and national outcomes – would give each vote far more equal value than first-past-the-post can possibly achieve, and every voter a far higher chance of getting at least one local MP who shared their own political sympathies.
Proportional representation does not have to arise from party lists : the single transferable vote (STV), used in the Republic of Ireland and proposed by the Electoral Reform Society, uses multi-member constituencies, and you vote by ranking your preferences.
In practice, political parties will put up as many candidates as there are available positions, and this gives the voter the choice to vote for their desired party, but vote against a particular individual by placing them low in the rankings.
The experience in Ireland appears to have been that politicians are more concerned about and in touch with local issues.
David Cameron's plan to reduce the number of MPs is bogus. While it cleverly plays to the public anger with MPs over the expenses scandal, it is self-serving in that if he wins power, it would only increase the power of his future government. By reducing the number of MPs, but not committing to reduce the number of MPs on the Government's payroll as ministers, the proportion of MPs able to speak their minds, to sign early-day motions or to serve on select committees will fall. There are already perhaps 90 MPs in government out of a total of 650. If the total is reduced, the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account, and defeat them in votes, will also reduce.
And, just as the public's expectations of its MPs increases, the MPs left will be less able to satisfy those demands because there will be fewer MPs to go around. They will be serving much larger constituencies. One can imagine that public cynicism of politics will only increase.
Mr Cameron has got some good publicity out of the expenses scandal and is being presented as decisive and reform-minded. But beware the man who uses the public's anger for his own agenda.
Dr Stephen Leah
David Cameron is not being bold enough in proposing the reduction of the number of MPs. Even after the proposed reduction of 10 per cent, there would be 582 MPs, which is 39 more than the number of MPs in India with a population of more than 1.1 billion.
H D Shah
The call by Health Secretary Alan Johnson for proportional representation at Westminster elections smacks of desperation. The new system Mr Johnson favours, known as alternative vote plus, was first suggested by the Commission on Electoral Reform, led by Lord Jenkins, in 1998. Labour has had more than a decade to reform the electoral system, but it suited them electorally to do nothing.
With less than a year before the general election, which will potentially see Labour wiped out of power for a considerable time, Mr Johnson suddenly makes a call for proportional representation, which will reduce the likelihood of future electoral destruction for Labour.
It is of course welcome that this call for electoral reform is being made, but for Mr Johnson to make such a call unfortunately discredits and taints it.
General elections are often decided on a single issue, something which happens to grab the current headlines, often just skilful publicity by someone, not necessarily entirely honest. But let two constituencies go to the polls each week, sending their representative for a fixed term of five years. As people voted, they'd know that the eyes of the nation were focused on them, briefly. They would know they're not overthrowing anyone, not winning anything, but sending a message to those in power, who would have to respond.
All systems which have 600 people representing 60 million will be unsatisfactory most of the time. A rolling election would seem to have some worthwhile advantages.
I am in favour of an elected House of Lords. I am also in favour of people's peers. Every year, along with the local elections, let us each write in the name of someone we consider worthy of a place in the Lords. Anyone getting over 100,000 votes would be offered a term there. Write-ins have worked in America.
As for the "celebrity peers" we might get, would Lord Branson, Baroness Lumley or Lord Sugar have less to contribute than party hacks?
In the party leaders' statements on political reform (27 May), Gordon Brown used the first person singular 16 times, David Cameron none, though he did use several instances of the first person plural, and Nick Clegg once. Still single-handedly running everything, Mr Brown?
Power to the people (front page, 27 May)? You're kidding. Since most of the media lost the ability to communicate politics, policy and intelligent analysis (with some exceptions), the British people have become unfit for a serious democracy. The last thing we want is control by the men and women in the street who voice ridiculous platitudes every night on television.
Laffer Curve is straight talk
Johann Hari (Comment, 26 May) tries to portray the Laffer Curve as a discredited theory by a deranged economist. The Laffer Curve is an established part of economics courses at universities across Britain. The concept behind the curve has heritage stretching back to Keynes. The basic principle is that very high and very low levels of taxation reduce overall revenue. The most efficient level of taxation is between the two extremes.
Commentators can doubt whether any economists (including the saintly Paul Krug-man) can be trusted to know the truth. But if Mr Hari is to condemn David Cameron for using the Laffer Curve he must also condemn university professors, Treasury advisers, professional economists, fellow journ-alists and thousands of students who have studied economics over the past two decades.
Southall case a GMC rarity
It is misleading to make a link between the death of Baby Peter and Dr Southall's High Court appeal against the GMC (report, 26 May). To suggest that paediatricians are left "badly undermined" by Dr Southall's erasure from the medical register is not true.
It is extremely rare for a paediatrician to appear before a GMC panel in connection with child protection. This case has particular circumstances, but paediatricians should not be deterred from fulfilling their duties to children. Doctors deserve, and have, the support of the public and their regulator in this extremely difficult area.
Deputy Chief Executive, General Medical Council, London NW1
Shell's power is limited in Nigeria
Since the end of the civil war in Nigeria, laws there (the Business Promotions Decrees) have ensured that most of the shareholding of all companies is in Nigerian hands, usually through the local stock exchange ("Shell on trial", 26 May).
The names of multinationals in Nigeria, such as Shell, do not reflect the membership of the boards or the voting rights of the shareholders, however much the multinationals might wish to spend money to limit pollution. The shareholders are mainly the elites of the major cities, far from the Niger Delta. If the pollution had been near Lagos, or other major cities, history may have been different.
W R Haines
Air of joy
Forget the crunch, crooked politicians and climate change. Over the past few days, I have seen more painted lady butterflies than I have in the past 10 years; a real reason to be cheerful.
Luck of the draw
Henrietta Cubitt (letters, 16 May) is not alone in suggesting that Stone Age art works may have been women's works. There are strong opinions that the Lascaux and Alta Mira cave paintings of animals and of hunting scenes may have been done by "magic women"and have been intended, at least in part, to help protect the hunters and bring them success. Certainly, the women had ready access to the materials used, such as charcoal, vegetable-juice dyes and bison grease.
Richard Dunker criticises parents who believe that they have "rights equivalent to ownership" over their baby sons when they cause them to be circumcised, this procedure being "not medically necessary" (letters, 21 May). Though quite aware of the difference between circumcision of boys and the often far more traumatic procedures practised on girls for whatever reason, I do feel that adoption of the same term – "genital mutilation" – for the procedures on both sexes might make parents of sons think twice.
Boyd Tonkin takes a rather old-fashioned view of Shakespeare's Sonnets ( 20 May). It is most likely that they were "inspired" by a number of young men. The new idea about them is that they were "recycled". The "inspirers" were young men Shakespeare was attracted to (charming, titled, country-house living, wealthy, Catholic) and courted as patrons. And there are two women "inspirers". Multiple subjects rather than singular ones is the key to beginning to understand the real-life story of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
John Idris Jones
Know your onions
Tom Bloomfield (letters, 18 May) has answered his own question, "Why should a vegetarian guest expect vegetarian food and not provide carnivore food when he is the host?" He likes vegetables; a vegetarian does not like or approve of eating meat. As for tofu, has Mr Bloomfield even tried it at a good Chinese vegetarian restaurant? There is an amazing variety of flavours and textures, each one more delicious than the last. Perhaps his vegetarian friend is not a very good cook?
Bosham, West Sussex
Michael McCarthy, in Nature Notebook (26 May), has described the Isle of Dogs as tonsil-shaped. The bit hanging down in the throat is the uvula. The tonsils would be Greenwich and Rotherhithe.
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