Despite the scorched earth policies of the Coalition Government, Labour has still failed to establish a clear lead in the opinion polls.
The banking collapse of 2008 erased any notion of economic competence. Ed Balls attempted a mea culpa at the Labour Conference, but even a penance, fasting for 40 days or being chained to a heavy rock cannot excuse Labour's blind faith in the markets and its failure to regulate the banks. Labour was so "intensely relaxed" about the rich that it allowed the wealth divide to widen to unprecedented levels.
What is Labour's grand plan? The "slightly less bad than the Tories" slogan just fails to inspire. Last time Britain was bankrupt was in 1945. The Labour government established the NHS and the welfare state, instituted a massive house-building programme and nationalised the utilities.
In his speech to the Labour party conference, I was pleased to hear Ed Balls lend his support to the construction industry's long-running campaign to cut VAT on home improvements to 5 per cent, as part of Labour's new five-point plan to kick-start the UK economy.
I only regret that he proposes to limit the reduction to a year. On the Isle of Man, the positive economic impacts of reducing the VAT rate on this category of spending to 5 per cent were such that a decision has now been taken to make the reduced rate permanent. Cutting VAT on home improvements has won equally strong endorsement from Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government. It would provide employment and green skills opportunities for construction apprentices, make our homes more energy efficient and root out the "cash-in-hand" cowboys who give our industry such a bad reputation.
I only hope common sense can prevail across the political spectrum and that the UK Government will now take up this proposal and put it into practice in this year's UK budget.
Scottish Building Federation
Sorry, the Labour VAT cut is completely the wrong strategy. If you reduce VAT, people will simply purchase more imported goods, which will do nothing for our balance of trade and nothing for our economy. Rather we should increase VAT, and reduce business taxes and employment taxes. We need to promote exports, to pay off some of our massive international debts, not promote the export of our currency to China.
While I agree with much of what Mary Ann Sieghart says on "The problem at the heart of Labour" (26 September), and when she writes, albeit simplistically, that "In 1979, Labour lost because it was taxing too much", I think she is being rather ingenuous when she adds "and failing to curb inflation".
Harold Wilson's Labour governments from 1964 to 1970 were certainly guilty of fuelling inflation then, by continually spending in a period of economic boom, contrary to the teachings of Keynes, whose methods they claimed to be employing.
During the years 1970-1974, Ted Heath's Conservative government was impotent in the battle against inflation, due mainly to a 400 per cent increase in oil prices in 1973-1974 following the Yom Kippur War, to the extent that when Labour won the February 1974 election, they "inherited" 24 per cent inflation, which rose to 27 per cent by the time Jim Callaghan had become Prime Minister in October 1974.
From then until May 1979 when Labour lost the election, inflation fell to around 8 per cent, a considerable achievement, before rising sharply again with the virtual doubling of VAT by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government.
Inflation was higher in 36 out of the following 48 months of the first Thatcher government's tenure than it was when Labour lost. So, although Labour didn't curb inflation completely, the relative decline in it during Callaghan's time puts Seighart's comment into a more appropriate perspective.
Dr J Mallon
In recent days Tessa Jowell, Ed Balls and doubtless others have been referring to the "mistakes" made when New Labour was in power, and it is clear that this is the party line; but collective amnesia seems to have overtaken them about the biggest mistake the party has ever made.
In the face of 2 million people marching against it, evidence being highly suspect, weapons inspectors' work curtailed and the pretext for war constantly changing, Labour MPs cravenly allowed Blair to invade Iraq, bringing unspeakable horror, death, degradation and grief to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi innocents. Labour has not apologised for this monstrous crime, and I and thousands of others who used to vote Labour will never consider doing so again until they do.
Why is it that only Labour politicians are called upon to "apologise" for perceived failings while in office? I don't remember any Tory saying sorry for their dreadful record in office over 18 years – the then two worst recessions since the Second World War, the most damaging of booms, more than three million unemployed, a doubling of crime, record business failures and bankruptcies, and hospital waiting lists of two years, not to mention the ERM fiasco.
EAST HORSLEY, SURREY
At the Labour Party conference, delegates were told the following. They got it wrong with the economy when they were in power. If they won the next election, they could not reverse any of the cuts being made at present. They do have a plan for government if they win the next election but no details could be given.
And Labour councillors in Middlesbrough refer to independent councillors as "negative"!
Labour's failure to break through in the polls is not surprising given the performance of its football team in the 3-2 defeat against the journalists on Sunday. While in both cases there has been a focus on the role of the Shadow Chancellor, the blame surely lies with the party leader and his failure to support strikers.
Flawed idea to adjust grades
The suggestion made by AQA that university applicants should be awarded or deducted "points" on the basis what school they went to contains more holes than a string vest.
The most obvious flaw is that it takes no account of the applicants (and there are many) who have attended several schools during their time, of differing types and quality.
A second issue is that of predicted grades, the element in the current system which is held to contribute most to the alleged unfairness to students from "bad" schools. The problem with predicted grades is that they are an inexact science wherever a student is educated, requiring teachers to predict in October or November (September in the case of Oxbridge applicants) how a pupil will perform the following June. AQA's proposal will simply add another layer of guesswork.
What of the pupil at a "bad school" whose parents have paid for private tutoring (not all poor schools are peopled only by the financially poor) or the initially under-achieving student who has attended a good state or independent school and seen huge value added?
AQA's suggestion militates against everything that successive governments have tried to achieve in the past 30 years, as teachers and schools have been subjected to initiative after initiative to "raise standards". Now they have apparently been raised to a level where there are too many good candidates for universities and it is proposed to penalise the beneficiaries.
Left high and dry by HS2
Nicholas Faith's HS2 panegyric (22 September) confirms how London-centred the high-speed train proposal is, but also underlines how damaging it would be to the future of the rail network. As he says, the West Coast Main Line now provides stopping services for intermediate towns between the major cities. Thus, Watford, Milton Keynes, Rugby and Coventry have all benefited economically and socially from the existing line passing through the town centres.
HS2, on the other hand, is designed to avoid urban centres and its only advantage, speed, is predicated on the need to have no intermediate stops. Nicholas Faith rather undermines his own case by his admission that the inhabitants of Ashford in Kent, which sits astride HS1, complain that too few of the fast international trains stop there; so much for customer satisfaction.
But stopping trains are not necessarily slow trains. Here in Watford we have an hourly Virgin service to Birmingham with stops at Milton Keynes, Coventry and Birmingham International. The journey takes 68 minutes. It is only because these trains are also taking passengers from London to Birmingham that they are frequent and profitable. But come HS2, will the profit-driven railway companies find any return in running a fast and frequent service for the major centres left high and dry by HS2? If I have to travel to Birmingham by the present alternative slow London Midland service, it takes exactly two hours : it's quicker by car. And how absurd that Milton Keynes, the largest conurbation created in England for over a century, should now be deprived of its WCML access!
The future of rail is dependent on service as well as speed. The billions of pounds to be spent on HS2 would be better used to give existing communities outside London a first-class journey.
Your report "Nurturing nature" (27 September) on the selecting and training of the most promising athletes for future British Olympic teams illustrates the decline of widespread participation in competitive sport. The solution for success in world-class competition is to train a limited number of athletes as if they were machines, who then retire early and are never heard of again – celebrity athletics.
During the 1960s and 1970s our best athletes emerged from the enormous depth of talent, participation and team spirit that then existed in club athletics. For every individual who was selected for a national team, there was a queue of others waiting for a place. To select the most promising for special development would have been unthinkable. Many of those from that era are still competing today in veterans' athletics.
The insecurity and pressure of life today means that the culture of 40 or 50 years ago is unrepeatable; few are able to commit the time that is necessary to reach the top. The athlete factory might be the only option, but we have lost something valuable and are poorer for it.
L J Atterbury
Faster than the speed of light
Susan Alexander draws an apt parallel between free-market theory and quantum mechanics (letter, 26 September), wondering if a possible revolution in the case of the latter will unfetter the lemming-like mindset of current capitalist theory.
In fact capitalism already evinces a belief in time-travel, or at least the ability to make time repeat itself in an endless groundhog loop of recession, boom, recession. This ruthlessly extractive economic model predicated on infinite expansion within a world of finite resources clearly owes much to post-Einstein theory. Something from and for nothing, the mantra of modern market theology.
As a person who has had an interest in particle physics as far back as the Stanford Linear Collider, or at least as far back as the article I found about it in a Scientific American magazine from 1989 that I came across in a pile of old papers I kept, I have a perfectly good explanation for how neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light.
If a rogue neutrino, like a cheating marathon runner, jumps off CERN part-way around the circle, runs across the park in the centre, then jumps back on just before the finish, it will look like it travelled faster than the speed of light. After all, they are quite small, and it probably wouldn't be noticed.
St Albans, hertfordshire
MPs' private correspondence
I'm a little bemused as to why we are suddenly all aghast and so shocked that MPs and their minions will use private email and texts to communicate "unofficially" with each other and strategic corporate contacts. Certainly, this isn't strictly playing by the rules, but covert communication between interested parties has been going on since the dawn of politics.
This week your paper printed a very cosy picture of our own Prime Minister enjoying a football game with none other than the UK's richest man and industrial titan, Lakshmi Mittal. Do people think their off-the-record conversation consisted entirely of mundane observations on the state of the half-time sausage rolls or Aston Villa's inability to collect all three points from the fixture?
Given the exposure of how blatantly certain parts of the British media, the Government and even the Metropolitan Police have been in cohoots with each other below the radar over the past few years, I think we're being a little naive to think all business gets conducted via official channels.
Pevsner in Cambridge
In her review of Susie Harries's life of Niklaus Pevsner (23 September), Frances Spalding mentions his lectures at Cambridge.
He gave a four-year cycle of the history of European painting. The lectures were delivered at 5pm on Friday evenings in one of the largest lecture rooms of the University. Despite their timing they were always over-full. I suspect that most of those who attended were (like me) reading subjects other than fine arts. He was not only profoundly knowledgeable but also enthusiastic and non-condescending – a model of the gifted pedagogue.
If women who wear the niqab (as pictured in your 26 September article on Saudi Arabian women getting the vote) do so voluntarily, supposedly to avoid attracting men, why do they wear such heavy eye makeup? I must be missing a lot of anthropological data here and would be happy to be enlightened.
Because of an editing error, the opening words of the last paragraph of Dr Rupert Read's letter about oppression in Syria were omitted (27 September). The sentence should have read: "Whether or not for the right reasons, the Government in the end performed well in Libya."
Perspectives onTony Blair’s wealth
Money-making demeans the office of Prime Minister
For Dominic Lawson to accuse Tony Blair's critics of suffering from "Blair Derangement Syndrome" is ludicrous ("What's wrong with a former PM trying to make money?" 27 September).
Blair's money-making after leaving office may not be illegal, but it demeans the office of Prime Minister to use it for financial gain. Two of his more respected American counterparts, ex-Presidents Harry S Truman and Jimmy Carter, pointedly refused to prostitute the office they held by engaging in commercial hucksterism, despite considerable blandishments from private industry. Compare that with Ronald Reagan who after his presidency ended was widely and deservedly ridiculed as Rent-a-Ron, the performing Presidential seal.
The New York Times noted: "Former Presidents haven't always comported themselves with the utmost dignity after leaving the White House, but until now, none have nakedly debased the office of President for financial gain."
Blair's financial finagling risks oveshadowing the bona fide accomplishments of his premiership, such as peace in Northern Ireland and bringing the late Slobodan Milosevic to justice.
We pay for his security
Dominic Lawson is correct. Mr Blair has the same right to the pursuit of wealth as any other subject of the Queen.
However unlike other British subjects (except other ex-prime ministers and a few special cases) the British taxpayer must foot the bill for his personal security. Many of his foreign trips seem to serve his own enrichment, such as speeches for which he is paid as much as £100,000.
Why should the British taxpayer pay his security costs when he is abroad making speeches and signing books?
George D Lewis