Letters: Labour must listen to the unions

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Your leader "Labour must stand up to the unions" (18 January) is a remarkable echo of the early 1930s. Then the response to the crisis following the Wall Street crash in 1929 was to impose savage cuts to balance the budget. As now, a coalition government took the action urged by "conservative", free-market economic voices. It represented the conventional wisdom of the day. Look where it led.

Your leader talks of Labour's need to speak to the "middle ground". That in fact is an increasingly empty arena, with mounting unemployment, and relentless downward pressure on wages (except those at the very top) pushing the bulk of the population inexorably downward.

I have many times disagreed with unions, both professionally and personally, but nobody else at the moment seems to be putting the case for fundamental changes to the structures which got us into this mess in 2008.

Balancing budgets can not only be achieved by cuts to expenditure: getting serious about tax havens, regulation of hedge funds, a transaction tax (just do it, of course the investment bankers will hate it), additional tax on super profits – there are plenty of suggestions, any or all of which will help not only to balance the country's budget, but to reverse the pernicious trends of the last 30 years or so, and begin to restore the spending power of the relentlessly squeezed middle. Where are our champions?

David Humphrey

London W5

Ed Miliband's inept and deceitful about-turn on public-sector pay is not just an insult to Labour supporters within the party, but a kick in the teeth to the millions of public-sector workers, often the most poorly paid members of society, who are suffering a real pay cut. In the unlikely event that Ed Miliband is elected, he now intends to continue this cut.

The Labour Party would not have been created without the trade union movement. It would never have survived without the financial contribution of the unions. Just who does Miliband think will support the party if the trade unions withdraw their support? Does he think Blair's middle class will somehow band together and break their piggy banks for him. Or does he hope that rich donors will swap their allegiance from the Tory party? And why would they do that? For his charisma, his dynamism, his integrity?

David Coe

St Helens, Merseyside

Principles clash on the web

The 'Stop Online Piracy Act' (SOPA) has sought to close down entire websites internationally purely on accusations by US media corporations. Some of its more oppressive features have been removed but only as a result of massive protest including the Wikipedia blackout.

The world wide web was established as a "commons" with access for all; it has given rise to a huge blossoming of human creativity. Corporate interests would like to fence the web in and if they could would make us pay for every click.

If we don't fight SOPA and similar moves to end net neutrality our creative commons will be gone. The corporations will write the history, saying that the web was a chaotic, dangerous, inefficient place until they disciplined it.

The web can create abuse and artists need to be rewarded for their efforts. Yet it would be a real tragedy if it was fenced in and neutered to please the likes of Rupert Murdoch. We must keep the web as a place for human interaction rather than a source of profit for a minority.

Dr Derek Wall


SOPA is certainly a controversial bill. But it is a very complex one, and requires detailed attention, not a superficial gloss. Wikimedia's protest throws in the words "freedom" and "free expression" without any proper thought as to what these terms mean.

SOPA expresses a firm commitment to property rights. Western societies are dominated by the presence of property rights, and thus it is natural for the US Senate to try and protect them.

For far too long, internet pirates have been able to contravene the property rights of artists in the digital space with no risk whatsoever. It is incumbent upon influential bodies, such as Wikimedia, to suggest how basic property rights can be protected in a way more amenable to their concerns.

Vedantha Kumar

Clare College, Cambridge

Do we need 'Boris Island'?

When I read the details of the proposed HS2 rail line to Birmingham and "the North", I noticed that the first station after London St Pancras was Birmingham International, right next to Birmingham airport. Aha, I thought, a rare example of joined-up government thinking. A high-speed rail link to bring air passengers from Birmingham to London, relieving the pressure on London's airports while developing the existing facilities at Birmingham.

A travel time of 40 minutes from Birmingham International to St Pancras is fantastic. That compares with a scheduled 22 minutes from Heathrow to Paddington, 30 from Gatwick to Victoria and 45 from Stansted to Liverpool Street.

Then I heard the announcement of "Boris Island". A potentially £50bn (and the rest!) airport development in the Thames estuary. Why spend all that money on that project in London?

Birmingham International is of course a provincial airport. It's not Home Counties. Not the sort of place likely to be noticed by politicians and civil servants. It probably needs some further development. However, it is there and it could be expanded to cope with extra traffic at a fraction of the cost of a new-build scheme.

No doubt, the proposed "Boris Island" will be hotly debated in London during this year's mayoral election. Let's hope that once that election is out of the way, more sensible voices can be heard, the idea quietly dropped and Birmingham's case advanced.

Roger Cook

Burley in Wharfedale, West Yorkshire

Sadly we do need a new airport for international flights. Hopefully, it will not need to handle domestic and near-European flights, as we shall by then all be travelling by high-speed train.

The far side of the deep-water port on the Isle of Grain has much to recommend it. With planes landing and taking off north to south, noise and disruption will be minimal, while providing many much-needed well-paid jobs in the Medway towns.

The existence of a railway line is also important, especially as it would easily connect to Heathrow by the Ashford-St Pancras high-speed link. Vehicles are a huge cause of pollution at airports. Grain would have to operate a remote main terminal, where passengers and freight would have to travel by train. Cars and lorries should be banned.

If we have to build a new airport for London, let it be the least environmentally damaging.

Jonathan Hunt

London SE5

How to call Salmond's bluff

The Coalition is making heavy weather of Alex Salmond's antics. It seems to me that Mr Cameron could safely (without risking damage to the Union) let Salmond ask the Scottish people whatever referendum question he likes, as long as he makes it clear that, whatever the result, there will be no more money.

So if there was a majority for full independence, the Scots would keep their oil but forfeit all of the (at present grossly inflated) subsidy under the Barnett formula.

In fact, George Osborne could announce in advance of any referendum that he will conduct a review of the Barnett formula which gives Scotland an absurdly inflated amount of (mostly English) taxpayer money so that Salmond can dispense with tuition fees, prescription charges and care fees for the elderly. Such a review might well conclude that to bring Scottish social provision in line with that which applies to the English and Welsh the subsidy might be cut by about 50 per cent. That should concentrate minds.

Derek Easey

Worthing, West Sussex

There were two parties to the Act of Union and there are two parties today who have a right to a voice on the future of that Union. The rest of the United Kingdom has a right to express a view as well.

We need a referendum in Scotland to decide if the Scottish people want to continue in the United Kingdom or not. We must also demand a referendum in the rest of the United Kingdom to determine if the other party wishes to retain Scotland within the Union.

Andrew Lee

Langport, Somerset

The cost of supermarkets

Can we scotch the myth, perpetuated by Geoffrey Lloyd (letters, 5 January) that large supermarkets are cheaper than high-street shops? They are undeniably convenient, and a godsend if you are short of time. But cheap they are not.

Our local greengrocers and farm shops sell better produce at better prices. The same is true of our local butchers, grocers and even delicatessens.

Ask yourself also how often you go into a supermarket with a list of five things, only to come out with five more things you didn't need but which caught your eye.

Melissa Hawker

Ledbury, Herefordshire

Shadow over the French election

As Andreas Whittam Smith argues ("Sarkozy could be toppled by the downgrade", 19 January), the immediate danger of France's fall from financial grace is to Sarkozy's prospects for re-election in May. But a wider threat now stalks French politics, that of an anti-system backlash amplifying the voices of protest, anti-Europeanism, and wider anti-establishment sentiment.

The Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, has been gifted a set of conditions more favourable than those which propelled her father to the presidential run-off against Jacques Chirac in 2002 – a deeply unpopular right-wing President, a lacklustre Socialist opposition, and a gathering crowd of prospective challengers right, left and centre to drain support from both.

Disaffection expressed through high abstention, spoilt ballots, anti-incumbent voting and support for extremist candidates was the mood music to Le Pen senior's shock success a decade ago – and that could play again now. The shadow of 2002 hangs increasingly over this election of 2012.

Professor James Shields

Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University, Birmingham

Run for cover

You report on the question of whether female boxers should wear skirts or shorts (19 January). There is a related point. Most women athletes now seem to wear a brief midriff-exposing top and exiguous bikini-style pants? Why is this? How is it seen in more modest societies than our own? Perhaps we should be grateful that the men keep their shirts on – at least for the time being.

Gyles Cooper

London N10

Italian mothers

I fully endorse Andrew Mulholland's letter (19 January) on your "light-hearted" racism about Italians. In this country, many of us put our mothers away at an old people's home to rot away slowly, to be taken out and dusted once a year at Christmas – and we dare to talk of Italians running to their mothers?

Ramji Abinashi

Amersham, Buckinghamshire

Sober days

Following recent advice, I am now having to go to the pub five nights a week instead of my previous two. My partner doesn't believe that this is better for my health, and is suspicious of the increase in my visits. As I am advised that I should have two alcohol-free days, how can I reassure her?

Harry Spooner