Sir: The debate over party funding is spurious. Most of this spending is not, as each party would claim, essential, but optional.
Much of Labour's secret £14m found its way to advertising and direct mail agencies and meeting organisers. As most marketers (I am one) know from decades of ad spend, there is no concrete proof that it works. Many blue chip brand owners have reduced their advertising spend. Direct mail agencies talk about their 3 per cent response rate, blithely ignoring the irritation felt by the 97 per cent who do not want to receive unsolicited mail, especially from political parties. That political advertising is largely exempt from the scrutiny of even relatively toothless voluntary codes of practice - "legal, decent, honest and truthful", try to keep a straight face - does little to strengthen the case for parties presenting any of their arguments through competing ad agencies.
The quality of debate is improved - and the protagonists more accountable - when electioneering takes the form of constituency meetings, broadcast debates, party political broadcasts and door-to-door canvassing. Take away unnecessary "marketing" spend and political parties could operate easily on member funding and capped donations, and prospective members of the House of Lords might have to do more than be wealthy to realise their ambition.
Sir: If I guarantee a loan to a political party (nothing in writing with the party, you understand), and the party defaults and I pay the loan off, would that buy me a peerage anonymously?
Sir: Why did our reforming prime minister draw back from carrying through a radical and democratic change to the House of Lords? Because it would have radically affected the cash flow of the Labour Party.
Sir: If the Labour Party want to borrow money, why do they not apply to a bank? Or do banks not consider them a good risk? I think we should be told.
Bloody outcome to the Iraq war
Sir: Two cheers for Johann Hari for admitting he was wrong about the war in Iraq (Opinion, 20 March). At least he was only guilty of naivety, in thinking that because the removal of Saddam was a "good" thing in itself, it imparted "goodness" to an illegal act of war. Leaving aside whether the end might justify the means, in the case of the Iraq war the end was always going to be a bloody one.
To say that the idea of Iraq becoming a liberal parliamentary democracy as a result of an armed "liberation" was always a naive illusion is not to pour scorn on the Iraqi people. It's just that the model cannot work. For a western-style democracy to exist, there must be a large element of commonality across the nation. There must be an acceptance of the right of parliament to govern, a trust and a confidence that it is acting on behalf of all the people, not a section.
The tribalism in Iraq means that no government can have legitimacy across the whole nation. The downward spiral of communal violence will continue, with everyone, no matter how well-meaning, well educated or politically liberal, being drawn inexorably inwards into their own group, as one atrocity follows another and everyone is forced to take sides.
The outcome, as a number of Iraqi commentators have recently pointed out, can only be a fragmenting of Iraq into sections where the requisite degree of commonality exists (including the inevitable purges and mass migrations of minorities). Either that, or the return of a dictatorial government like Saddam's which will impose order through terror.
We've been here before. Why can't we learn from history?
STOKE ON TRENT
Sir: If it's any comfort to Johann Hari, my opposition to the war had no effect on Tony Blair and, I suspect, Johann Hari's support had no effect either.
Sir: Your front-page article "The war dividend" (13 March) clearly displayed the logo of the University of Nottingham. No further mention was made of our institution in the lead story, and your readers were given no opportunity to judge for themselves the fairness of our presence in an alleged "roll call of post-war profiteers".
A team of experts from across the Middle East is working with Iraqi delegates, led by members of this university's distinguished human rights law centre. The programme, funded by the Government with the endorsement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, seeks to address the full range of responsibilities which fall to the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq. This includes the monitoring of abuses, dealing with the crimes of the past and helping to develop a national human rights plan of action and human rights training curriculum.
The University of Nottingham human rights law centre is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights in Iraq, and worldwide. In such circumstances, we believe your readers will consider the use of a not-for-profit institution's logo alongside the words "the British companies making a fortune out of war-riven Iraq" to be extremely harsh and inappropriate.
DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM
The wrong reform for schools
Sir: Until I read Peter Holmes's letter (17 March) I was beginning to think that the great education debate was being held on another planet.
Mr Holmes directs us to those things which really matter for our children's future - enjoying what is being taught, acquiring useful skills and enhancing their employability.
Contrast that with the spin put on the education Bill: setting schools free from jurassic local education authorities, more foundation schools directly funded from central government, involving business etc.
Why has the Bill not been based on the mountain of research and Ofsted reports which clearly demonstrate what is required? These show that pupils need parental support, to have a good attendance record and to do the work, and for schools to have good leadership and management, quality teaching and learning and effective governance. No mention here of structural changes.
As a parent, grandparent, sometime local authority education committee member and recently with cabinet responsibilities for education, I despair at the superficiality of the Bill's approach. But then it is not glamorous or newsworthy to invest in the basics which, as most business and ordinary families know, is what brings success.
Sir: The nature of choice (including a parent's right to choose a school for their child) is that it is not available for everyone. It reminds me of the dinner queue at school. You were OK if you were at the front, but if you were at the back you had no choice.
The only good thing about the dinner queue was that you had a chance of being at the front the next day. The other way to deal with choice in the dinner queue is to ensure that too much is cooked so choice is available for all; leading, of course, to wastage.
Nature banished from the country
Sir: I refer to the letter "Challenge to closure of ecology labs" (15 March) from Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer.
Over 20 years there has been a succession of expensive major reorganisations of environmental bodies in the UK. The Nature Conservancy Council was split into three. The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology was absorbed into CEH. CEH was then moved into Nerc, which is under the Department of Trade and Industry. In 2001-02, Nerc closed two freshwater biology stations and moved staff into a new laboratory at Winfrith, which is one of the wildlife research stations they are now planning to close. The Department of the Environment was merged with Maff to become Defra.
The Government must be very satisfied with the return for this expenditure. They have finally managed to erase from their statutory environmental bodies any evidence of unpalatable terms such as "ecology", "wildlife ", "conservancy" and "biology". I understand that even "nature" has become politically incorrect, since English Nature is about to become Natural England, which presumably will have to compete with anyone wanting to use the countryside for recreation, building, pipelines etc.
One has the impression we are now being ruled by a business culture which believes any research that cannot compete for industrial funding should not be supported. If one was being cynical, one might observe that some of the important research that has been done on our environment is actually against business interests.
Treasures of the world
Sir: Is there not a certain irony in Robert Knox (21 March) talking of " huge quantities of objects being removed from prehistoric sites"? Or is the Department of Asia at the British Museum entirely made up of artefacts brought to this country with somebody's express permission?
Sir: Has someone magnetised the central reservation of every motorway and dual carriageway in Britain? It seems to be the latest craze to come zooming down the slip road and head straight for the outside lane as if the car has a mind of its own and heads there naturally. It would be nice if people took their time when entering a motorway instead of trying to beat the land speed record.
Sir: Today's "advanced" sudoku puzzle (20 March) shows what I have long suspected, that a puzzle does not necessarily have just one solution. In the fifth row the fourth and fifth entries must be "5" and "8" but in either order, provided they occur in the opposite order as the fourth and fifth entries in the bottom row. Is there any worked-out proof of whether a solution actually exists to any given Sudoku puzzle? And is there any proof that a solution so found is unique? (And how sad do you have to be for all this to matter?)
Sir: Every year, thousands of dogs and cats are neutered. There is no public outcry over this; we know that, if neutering these animals was banned, they would be less acceptable as pets. Why is docking puppies' tails to be outlawed? Like neutering, it can be painful, but usually is not, if carried out correctly. Like neutering, it is done solely for human gratification. Unlike neutering, it does not permanently affect the animal's hormonal balance, so is less of an interference with its natural state. Why is one acceptable and the other not?
Harold Wilson's legacy
Sir: Denis Healey (Monday Interview, 20 March) has forgotten the one legacy Harold Wilson asked to be remembered for: the Open University. It was his own idea, conceived on a trip to Chicago in the early 60s. He pushed it through against much opposition. Some of us will be for ever grateful to him for his vision in creating an institution which is unique in the world.
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