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Saturday 30 May 2009
Letters: Expenses and reform
Is reform talk a cynical bid to cover up the expenses scandal?
Suddenly, all the parties are trying to embrace reform of Parliament. Is this a cynical attempt to set up a smokescreen to cover up the expenses row, or perhaps at last they understand that a party obtaining just 23 per cent of the electorate's vote and a thumping majority is just not democratic.
The fundamental problem is that only some 300,000 voters under our present system decide the outcome, but the rest of us are expected to do our duty even though we know the result in our constituency on the day the election is called. Even worse, the candidate is nothing to do with us, but some Central Office-approved lobby fodder.
But those who are considering reform of the FPTP system cannot keep their sticky fingers away from control by insisting on the top-up list system. Primaries might help, but a system of multi-member constituencies would mean that Tories would get the type of Tory they want and therefore the party in which they are comfortable, likewise the New Labour lot.
But proportionality has to come; how can it be right that a party getting 22 per cent of those voting finishes up with 9 per cent of the MPs. Taxation and representation come to mind; maybe we Lib Dems should pay our taxes proportionally.
With reference to David Cameron's excellent ideas "Why I want to open up candidate selection": in the radical re-organisation of our parliamentary system, which now seems necessary, he may like to consider two points from the ancient Athenian democracy of the fifth century BC. Then, men selected for office had to undergo an audit of their personal wealth and income prior to taking office and when leaving.
Any gross discrepancies left them liable to charges of corruption. Then, such men were allowed to serve on the law-making council for only two years in total, but not running consecutively.
We could adapt this so MPs could serve for five-year periods but not to run consecutively. This would have the advantage of bringing MPs bck to the reality of everyday life with which the rest of us have to struggle.
While any alternative to FPTP is worth considering, Bill Hyde's proposal for rolling elections (letters, 28 May) reminded me, perhaps unfairly, of the caucus race organised by the Dodo in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
"First it marked out a race course, in a sort of circle ('The exact shape doesn't matter,' it said) and then all the parties were placed along the course, here and there. There was no 'One, two, three and away but they began running when they liked and left off when they liked so that it was not easy to know when the race was over'." When pressed to name the winner, the Dodo declares, after much thought, that "Everyone has won and all must have prizes".
How would a rolling system work in practice? On the basis of two elections per week, it would take more than six years to complete the full electoral cycle (614 seats). The first two constituencies, presumably chosen arbitrarily by lot, would have to hold another election seven days after they had sent their chosen candidate to the House, the next in line would last a fortnight and so on down to the lucky survivors at the bottom of the list who would last the full term.
The government would, of course, fall as soon as it lost its absolute majority, and from then on would be dependent on the outcome of each weekly result, so it would be quite impossible to conduct any parliamentary business, let alone govern the country.
Adrian Hamilton is right to call for better financial scrutiny by select committees ("The wrong way to reform the Select Committee system", Comment, 28 May). Financial scrutiny should be considered as one of the most fundamental tasks of MPs.
That's why the Hansard Society recommended three years ago, before the financial crisis hit the headlines, that a Parliamentary Finance Office be established to provide comprehensive support to all MPs and Select Committees regarding fiscal matters. MPs would benefit from independent, authoritative expertise and knowledge on fiscal matters so that they do not have to rely solely on information from the Executive.
Dr Ruth Fox
Director, Parliament and Government programme, Hansard Society, London WC2
Gordon Brown writes of the need for constitutional change in the wake of the squalid scandal of MPs' expenses. The biggest single change that is needed is for England to have her own Parliament and be responsible for her own laws and taxes and let the rest of this "Union" look after itself.
We in England are doubly tired of our "governing" classes, especially the Scottish mafia that has caused us such harm.
Burbage Hinckley, Leicestershire
David Cameron claims that he wants "real action to bring about change". Yet the scant ideas he sets out sound like an undergraduate's essay, written overnight: high on padding, low on substance. One can almost imagine the would-be prime minister in the dim glow of his laptop, penning the next cast-iron commitment of a Conservative government.
Wait for it: it's to "consider" fixed-term Parliaments. "I know there are strong arguments against this," he says, while desperately rifling through his lecture notes in a vain attempt to find such arguments. The paper must be handed in tomorrow.
What next? "There are further steps we need to take to end the culture of sofa government." Yes, that's good; no one likes "sofa government", after all. We want government on hard chairs with hard choices. Must finish this off and get on to the next assignment. Now then, how to conclude? What about, "We are looking for the most radical redistribution of power Britain has ever seen"? He's right, "we" are, but it's very clear that the Conservative Party has no intention of offering any such thing.
For "real action" and real change, we have only Nick Clegg to turn to.
Three simple ideas would lead to reducing dramatically the power of party machines, which lead to whipping of MPs to vote against their consciences.
Parliament should have a fixed four-year term with 25 per cent of MPs elected each year, in a patchwork pattern so that all regions re-elect 25 per cent of their MPs. This means there is a regular response to the national mood, and parties are subject to annual scrutiny. This allows progressive moves from one political sentiment to another without allowing massive parliamentary majorities to rule for several years.
MPs should represent the constituency where they live, meaning where they already live, not being trucked into a safe seat to support a party machine. This will avoid the nonsense where an MP representing Luton has a home in, say, Southampton because their family really resides there.
Candidates should declare their ideology and principles in their manifesto. This will draw out the real differences between candidates, and give voters a real choice, unlike the almost identical, soundbite politics of the main parties' recent manifestos.
Israel must stop settlements
Having recently taken part in the Palestine Literary Festival and visited various parts of the West Bank, I can only applaud President Barack Obama's attempt to press for a halt in the building of settlements. I'd read about the situation, but nothing had prepared me for what I saw on the ground.
Though condemned under international law, the building has been going on since 1967 and is well-funded, deliberate and systematic. The settlers have their own network of roads (which Palestinians are not allowed to use), their own water and electricity resources and the right to carry arms in defence of their homes. In all aspects of their everyday life, the Palestinians are made to feel inferior. Power is wielded by the gun, the watchtower, the arbitrary search, and, ultimately, by the separation wall which breaks up centuries-old communities and cuts farmers off from their lands. This isn't security, it's conquest.
Most depressingly, the policy of West Bank settlements deliberately prevents the people of the area, Jewish or Palestinian, from coming together for any kind of mutual interest or to exchange or discuss their experiences. With human contact virtually forbidden, it's hard to imagine how political change can ever be effected.
The only shred of hope is that those who oppose the settlements, many of whom include Israeli citizens, writers and commentators, will take heart from President Obama's un-equivocal stance and create a groundswell of opinion which even the Israeli government might not be able to ignore.
David Simmonds thinks Hamas is a rational nationalist group that will accept a Palestine solely on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (letters, 27 May). It is a lethal terrorist organisation. Hamas views Israel as an Islamic waqf, held in perpetuity for Muslims. Its charter states that jihad is the only way forward and peaceful negotations are invalid.
Hamas is supported by Hezbollah, the Party of God, and an Iran that views Israel as anathema to the Middle East. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Israel's behaviour there is nothing that will appease these groups apart from the disappearance of Israel. The only chance for peace is replacing President Ahmadinejad with either of his two reformist opponents in Iran's 12 June election. If that fails, any chance of peace for the next four years is severely curtailed.
Honour Suu Kyi
Every European capital should confer on Aung San Suu Kyi the "Freedom of the City". I think it would be fitting if The Independent supported this call.
Bray, Co Wicklow
Glowing with anger
Glow-in-the-dark marmosets make good headlines but not good science (report, 28 May). There are thought to be 25,000 genes in each human. Inserting one gene into a different species cannot replicate the effects and interactions within our highly complex bodies, and this technological patch-up job is a wasteful distraction from the human-based research we desperately need. The body of a marmoset belongs to it, not us, and inserting genes into it gives us no more right to use or abuse it for our purposes than branding it with a hot iron.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Europe, London SE1
Peaked by Everest
John Hawgood (letters, 27 May) considers it ludicrous to refer to Mount Everest as "she". But, as the local Tibetan name for the peak is Chomolungma, which can be translated as "Goddess Mother of the Snows", what other gender could she have? And I, too, am annoyed (letters, 26 May) by the contention that Sir Ranulph has conquered the mountain. He has climbed it, not conquered it. To quote that great climber, George Leigh Mallory, possibly the first to climb Everest, "Have we conquered an enemy? None but ourselves".
D C Brown
High Peak, Derbyshire
I would like to thank Jonathan Brown for his excellent article (26 May) on Father Desbois's heroic efforts to honour the memory of victims of wartime Nazi atrocities in the former Soviet Union. As with so many tragedies through history, the perpetrators seem to have got away scot-free. It is good that Father Desbois has been able to find witnesses after all these years, including people who were forced to collaborate in these crimes. But what about the criminality of those who stood and watched?
Dr Inderjeet Mani
Your report on 27 May draws tenuous parallels between footballers dressed as nuns, Paul O'Grady in drag, and the huge number of other people who feel unbound by society's constructed gender binary and constrictions regarding "appropriate" dress for your sex. You seem to think it should all be kept under lock and key so as not to upset the lives of people like her who live in the "real world". At worst, that looks like trans-phobia.
No fan of football
On 27 May, eight and half pages on football, most of it about one match. The day after, seven pages and a further one and a half on what are supposed to be news pages. For God's sake, get a sense of proportion.
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