Letters: Electoral reform

Electoral reform is vital to combat the new-look Tories
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The Independent Online

Sir: "The New Labour era is over and the party needs a new approach to combat a revived Conservative Party, a leading Blairite has said", (report, 10 December). What New Labour needs to do is to follow through its original 1997 approach, forced on them by first-past-the-post (FPTP), which was to steal some of the Tories' clothes in order to regain power, and then to aim at a rational PR electoral system which would ensure that the progressive left-of-centre vote was properly represented in Parliament. This was the commitment made in 1997, which has since been cynically reneged upon.

Let us not forget the absurdity of a system under which for 18 years we had to endure a succession of extreme right-wing governments with the support of never more than 32 per cent of the electorate, and where the progressive left-of-centre always had more than 50 per cent of the votes cast.

It is probably too late to expect a change to PR before the next election since it would involve time-consuming boundary changes. However, it would, I suggest, be possible to adopt a two-stage approach. This could entail introducing the Alternative Vote (AV) in the existing single-member constituencies, which may not even require a referendum, followed in due course by AV in multi-member constituencies (STV), or by a more proportional Additional Member system, as in Scotland.

AV, in single-member constituencies, is most certainly not PR and indeed can be even less proportional than FPTP. However, facing the raw political facts, I reluctantly make this suggestion because it is likely - through later preference voting - at least to ensure that constituencies with a split majority of progressive left-of-centre votes do not land up with a reactionary Tory as their MP.

This I see as the only hope of Labour's being sure of a majority at the next election. The Tories' shiny new leader may be hollow at the centre but, praised by Murdoch and the right-wing press, he could be attractive to that tiny proportion of the electorate - the floating voters in marginal seats - who decide the outcome of elections under FPTP.



New law protects the right to protest

Sir: I am really sorry that my constituent Maya Evans was convicted under Section 122 of the new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (report, 8 December).

On the face of it, it looked to be an overreaction on the part of the prosecutors but be that as it may, it would be wrong to say that the legislation is unnecessary. Its purpose is not to deny protest but to ensure that such protest is possible.

Historically all sorts of protests have taken place around Parliament, but with the current terrorist threat it would be easy to mask a terrorist atrocity under the guise of a legitimate demonstration. The easy solution would have been to simply ban such protest - as the media indeed claim is the purpose of the Act - but that was not the Government's intention.

Section 122 of the Act makes protests within 1km of Parliament illegal unless authorised by the police. However, the police are required to give that authorisation unless public safety or national security is compromised. Thus protests such as that of Maya Evans can be accommodated, provided the police are informed in advance. Indeed it should be noted that Miss Evans's fellow demonstrator Mr Rai did give such notice and was not prosecuted.

Ms Evans's prosecution is unfortunate and appears to have been somewhat zealous, but to suggest it is an attack on free speech is bizarre. Such a right must be, and indeed is, protected by this legislation.



Sir: Matthew Minshall in his letter (9 December) asserts that military personnel should not refuse to serve in a theatre of war on moral or any other grounds. Notwithstanding the fact that "any other grounds" is clearly an absurdly wide statement, he is also demonstrating a very close-minded view and ignorance of the fact that soldiers' loyalties are first and foremost to their country, not to their leaders.

Are we to believe that the soldiers perpetrating the atrocities in Abu Ghraib are to be exonerated on the grounds that they were just following orders, thus absolving them from all moral responsibilities? Societies such as North Korea, China and Zimbabwe may insist on unquestioning loyalty to commit any act at the whims of their leaders, but in a true democracy, all people have a right to abstain from participation in deeds they consider ethically repugnant.



Sir: Conrad Cork (letter, 10 December) is right. If Flight Lieutenant Kendall-Smith can prove his claim that under international law the war in Iraq was illegal, he and any others who refused to serve are innocent.

No court martial can provide justice in this situation. In a court martial it is members of the armed forces who constitute the judge and jury. By remaining in the armed forces, they have implicitly accepted that the war in Iraq was legal. They are thus fatally compromised in trying any case in which the legality of the war is the crux of the issue.

The Attorney General has already insisted that one case (to do with the death of Sergeant Steven Roberts in Iraq) should be removed from the Army's control and heard by a civilian court. He should do the same at once with the case of Malcolm Kendall-Smith.



Sir: Your readers express concern at the arrest of Ms Evans under SOCPA. I hope that they realise that, as from January 2006, every offence under criminal law becomes arrestable. This includes all motoring offences, picking a bunch of protected wild flowers and every other misdemeanour. As a serving officer I would also like to point out that the primary performance indicator for police constables is the number of arrests they make each month. I leave the public to reflect on the implications of this draconian legislation.



Sir: The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act has its origins in an effort to remove Brian Haw's long-running vigil for peace opposite the gates of Parliament. Since Brian has been short-listed for the campaign group Liberty's yearly human rights award for his stand against the war in Iraq, this accolade surely hints at the real driving force behind the new legislation: an increasingly unpopular Government desperately seeking to restrict and discourage protest and to silence the truth.



Sir: My mother arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany a week before the Second World War started. I have vivid memories of her in the late 1940s standing open-mouthed with amazement by a speaker who had set up his soap box by the White Stone Pond at the top of Hampstead Heath. He was voicing distinctly Nazi opinions, but the police were standing by to ensure that he could have his say without being attacked.



Phonics is the best way to teach reading

Sir: Professor Henrietta Dombey (letter, 5 December) points out that "English children don't like reading as much as they used to" and believes that "If we prioritise synthetic phonics in teaching our five-year-olds we risk a further fall in attitudes".

It should be noted, though, that the period during which children have started liking reading less than they used to has been one in which the National Literacy Strategy has enshrined something very close to the "variety of approaches" favoured by Professor Dombey and many of her fellow teacher-trainers. What has been found by Jim Rose, the author of the interim report which recommends synthetic phonics, is that this more mixed approach can be "a daunting and confusing experience" for many beginners. In effect, they are expected to run before they can walk.

Yes, learning to read in English can be an "uphill job", as Professor Dombey points out. But the fact is that the walk-before-you-run approach seems to make it easier. In the Clackmannanshire study which has been so influential, the synthetic phonics programme lasted for just 16 weeks at the beginning of children's schooling. At the age of 11, however, these children had word-reading skills over three years above national norms and spelling skills 20 months above the norms. Even their comprehension, which was only three-and-a-half months above national norms, was very impressive, given that they were from the most deprived 10 per cent of the population. It would be a pity if objections from professors prevented an attempt to replicate these impressive results nationally.



How to tackle global warming

Sir: Your edition of 3 December focused on climate change and encouraged individual responses. You quoted Katherine Hamnett saying that her "green successes" included making her fridges and cars (note the plural) last for ages. Presumably Ms Hamnett hasn't seen the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report saying that old fridges and cars are contributing to a much slower closing of the ozone hole than expected.

I suggest that, by turning the discussion about global warming into a debate about personal morality and behaviour, we will end up with an ever-more bewildering array of self-flattery and hand-wringing, rather than the useful focus on evidence-based policy options that is clearly needed.



Payment by results leads to dishonesty

Sir: The research you quote in your article on the results of teacher incentives ("Payment by results works for teachers", 9 December) misleads by omission.

Similar research conducted by economist Steven Levitt in the USA shows that, while average grades do slightly increase when teachers are given financial incentives, the same students that show increased grades fall back to expected levels in the subsequent years not covered by Professors Burgess and Propper's research. He also showed that a significant proportion of the teachers who improved results did so by personally adjusting students' exam papers.

While there may possibly be marginal improvements using these techniques, you will certainly create cases of dishonesty where none existed before, creating resentment between teachers and setting a dangerous example to the nation's children.



Fashion brands care about workers' rights

Sir: I read with interest the latest ethical ranking of high-street fashion brands (report, 8 December). While efforts to measure companies' "ethical" performance are to be welcomed, definitions of what is meant by this vary widely. The danger is that insufficient weight is given to companies' efforts to protect workers' rights. While the article implied the contrary, members of the Ethical Trading Initiative are corporate leaders in this area.

Last year alone our member companies, which include Marks & Spencer, Gap and Zara, made over 28,000 separate improvements to workers' conditions and participated in projects to help prevent exploitation of migrant workers, home-workers and garment workers in some of the poorest countries in the world.



Sir: Ethical Consumer magazine suggests buying from charity shops. Disproportionate numbers of charity shops' staff have disabilities (access allowing). Many people with a disability lack access to paid work due to scant services or lack of treatment needed to enable us to get and maintain paid employment, not to mention some employers' prejudices. It's still easier for people with a criminal record to get employment than people with a disability. In such circumstances charity-shop work is a Hobson's choice.

Does Ethical Consumer include disability practices in its criteria for assessment? And are charity shops' practices ethical, or exploitative of excluded groups such as the long-term unemployed, disabled, and retired?



But is it art?

Sir: Making a boatshed is only making a boatshed ("Starling flies to Turner prize", 6 December). Take it out of the gallery and it will not be viewed in the same light. To qualify as a work of art, an object should be recognisable as such outside of a gallery.



Make buying sex illegal

Sir: Eva Maydell has it wrong (letter, 9 December). It's not the sex workers who should be tested for disease, taxed and regulated; it's the "punters". Making it illegal to sell is not nearly as effective as making it illegal to buy, as is the case in Sweden.



A Christmas quarrel

Sir: Your correspondents (letter, 10 December), claim that Christmas has been appropriated by "secularists". On the contrary: religionists have appropriated the winter solstice.



Accidents will happen

Sir: The scale of the disaster at Hemel Hempstead is a good, if unfortunate, reminder that industrial accidents of this scale do happen sooner or later. This is something to keep vividly in mind when the Government prepares itself to back the construction of more nuclear power stations.

The argument that nuclear power plants are much safer today fails to recognise that accidents can and will happen, regardless of how modern and safe we believe our industry to be. It is the consequences of the disaster we should consider, not its probability.



Missing: drunken yobs

Sir: Please forgive my impatience, but I'm waiting to read the many predicted stories about our streets being awash with drunken yobbos following the changes to the licensing laws. Did I miss these, or did the changes pass without incident?