Letters: Minor parties shut out

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Sir: Peter Hain's proposal that Britain adopt the Australian "alternative vote" system (report, 4 March) won't get much support from proportional representation advocates.

The single-member version of AV has resulted in a very strict two-bloc system in the Australian Federal Parliament. In the past 90 years there has been only one minor party MP elected - a Green in a by-election in 2002. All other seats have gone to either the Australian Labor Party or the permanent coalition of the urban Liberal Party and the rural National Party, the Lib-Nats.

What the Australian AV system would do is effectively convert the second preferences of centre-left minor party voters into a vote for Labour - and leave those centre-left voters with not one MP to call their own, as has long been the case in Australia.

The Australian AV system is even worse than first-past-the-post as it removes even the slim possibility of splitting the vote between two major parties and allowing a third party to come through the middle.

It should be noted that the Australian Lower House is balanced by a PR-elected Senate with the power to absolutely stop any legislation dead in its tracks by majority vote. This serves to temper the polarisation inherent in the a two-party legislature as evidenced in the Lower House.

STEVE WITHERS

MEMBER OF NATIONAL EXECUTIVE , ELECTORAL REFORM COALITION, FOXTON, NEW ZEALAND

Sir: If Peter Hain was right that the House of Lords too often opposes the will of Parliament (report, 4 March), I would welcome curbs on its powers. Since, in reality, the Lords are the main opposition to policies decided by the Prime Minister and his unelected advisers, I'm all for them having as much power as possible.

JOHN DAVISON

LONDON SW9

Animal research: bring on the debate

Sir: It is good to see The Independent (leading article, 4 March) condemning "cowardly and bullying extremists"who have deprived the public of a proper debate on the use of animals in medical research. Such a debate, with proper evaluation of the evidence, might have persuaded Sharon Howe (Opinion, 6 March) not to give back her Oxford degree. Research such as that of Tipu Aziz and John Stein in the new research facility at Oxford, to which she objects, offers the best current hope for treatment of her mother's Parkinson's.

Steve Connor's reflection on the evidence (6 March) will advance the debate. He demolished the arguments of Julia Stephenson (16 January) whose polemic on behalf of Europeans for Medical Progress failed to mention that their misrepresentation of evidence had recently been condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

All reasonable people agree that arson, threats and violence are unacceptable, and everyone hopes that the expression of revulsion at such tactics will sideline the bullies once and for all. We look forward to a proper debate, in which the quality of evidence will be crucial.

A small fraction of the research funded by the Medical Research Council involves animals, when it provides the best means of moving towards new cures and prevention. But the council is also the UK's largest funder of research on alternatives, as well as ways of reducing numbers of animals used.

We support you in your condemnation of the "loathsome extremists", but we must all agree on ground rules for the debate to follow. Those rules should include a commitment to quality of evidence, openness and honesty. And a willingness to listen to the arguments of others.

COLIN BLAKEMORE

CHIEF EXECUTIVE, MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, LONDON W1

Sir: Steve Connor is right in claiming intelligent debate is long overdue on the subject of animal experiments. How sorely his arguments could do with some.

To claim that animal tests protect us against harmful effects from new drugs and chemicals defies the statistics: 92 per cent of drugs pass animal tests but fail in human trials, and the 8 per cent that reach the market are the direct cause of an estimated 200,000 deaths in Europe and the US each year. Computers cannot ensure safe drugs, of course, but alongside tests involving human cells, genetic analysis and microdosing they can do a better job than completely different species. Thalidomide was tested on over 50 types of animal after the human catastrophe to prove its effects: with the eventual exception of a specific type of rabbit and some monkeys, all of these failed.

The ASA's decision against EMP was based on semantics and misunderstanding, the details of which we are happy to provide on request (info@cure disease.net): we never claimed animals had not been used in leukaemia research, only that they had been unhelpful. We stand by this claim.

The onus is on supporters of animal experimentation to prove their case: their current unsubstantiated generalisations insult everyone's intelligence. Hi-tech, human-specific research is the way forward. Opponents of animal testing would be happy to see an independent evaluation of the merits of all research methods: why do its supporters object?

DR JARROD BAILEY

SCIENCE DIRECTOR, EUROPEANS FOR MEDICAL PROGRESS, LONDON W13

Sir: Dr Barker and his bioscience colleagues (letter, 2 March) ask for people from other sectors "to stand alongside them".

I work in the area of population health, particularly for groups of young people with special needs. Public health deals routinely with factors for "risk", "prevention", "protection" and "resilience". A crucial element in understanding these factors is the developmental biology. Good laboratory research such as on patterns of brain development, is a beacon of light in mapping out the needs for care among the large population of children growing up with disabilities.

So, as a community practitioner, I support democracy at all levels and oppose oppressive violence. I also know that comprehensive knowledge is much better than ignorance, in addressing disabling conditions. Solidarity, then, with the biologists.

WOODY CAAN

PROFESSOR OF PUBLIC HEALTH ANGLIA RUSKIN UNIVERSITY CAMBRIDGE

The African version of democracy

Sir: John Coleman's recollection (letters, 2 March) of an African chief's sagacious comparison of traditional consultative governance with western-style democracy is instructive.

In the course of research for a book on the roots of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa I came across a similar highly organised, grass-roots village representation structure in pre-colonial Benin kingdom (approximately Edo State in modern Nigeria). Even when the Edo people submitted to foreign rule by the Ife Yoruba around 1300, the new ruler sent to oversee Benin had to submit to strict control by the Edo council of village elders.

Commentators tend to highlight corruption and misrule as major causes of recurring civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa. But the arbitrary centralised states bequeathed by European colonialists, in a region boasting more ethnic diversity than anywhere else in the world, were always going to be dysfunctional.

Successful democracy requires more than a vote for a candidate on a prescribed list. It requires a real say on how, and by whom, one is governed.

EUGENE D BELL-GAM

SUDBURY, WEMBLEY

Guantanamo defies the rule of law

Sir: I am surprised that Guantanamo (report, 6 March) is not regularly described as a "concentration camp" - a place where those considered by a regime to be a danger to the state are "concentrated" without due process of law. The British had them during the Boer War, and Hitler and Stalin took them to extremes

The Archbishop of Canterbury is right to say that the US, by having such a facility, is setting a terrible example. The British government by its silence is complicit. Those responsible are becoming the new barbarians and losing the West the moral high ground.

The existence of the Guantanamo concentration camp is bound to result in more recruits to terror and an escalation of hatred of the West in the Middle East, with dire results for our children and grandchildren. The West must return to the rule of law. It is in our enlightened self-interest to recapture the moral high ground.

DAVID JONES

BRIDPORT, DORSET

What makes Jowell a good minister

Sir: I am glad that Tony Blair has complete confidence in Tessa Jowell, despite her being prepared to sign a large mortgage application without knowing why, just because she was asked to. I understand that Gordon Brown regards Ms Jowell as an excellent minister, confirming the view that neither a questioning nature, nor common sense are necessary attributes for that office, but doing what you are told is.

LARS MCBRIDE

LONDON SW19

Sir: It gets more like the Colosseum every day. I am increasingly sickened by watching the gutter press behaving like the lions.

Tessa Jowell is my MP, and a very good one. I don't know enough to condemn her or not but I know that the way certain sections of the Press are handling things is appalling. It's a kind of torture by media. We're used to trial by media, but this is different.

EMMA HITCHCOCK

LONDON SE24

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