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Tuesday 18 May 2010
Letters: Political futures
Cuts will help the recovery
It is a pity that your leading article of 17 May continues to make the simplistic argument that cutting public spending in the short term threatens the recovery. Provided fiscal tightening is based on lower public spending and not higher taxation, tightening is likely to be good for growth and will actually help kick-start the recovery.
In particular, early spending cuts would remove uncertainty and boost business investment, key drivers of economic growth. Companies and households have been holding off on spending decisions while they decide whether the Government has the will to cut spending. If significant early cuts are outlined in the emergency Budget some of this uncertainty will evaporate. And, crucially, lower spending will create downward pressure on gilt and bond yields, which would in turn be good for business investment.
If anything is likely to jeopardise the recovery it is delaying the cuts. Contracts and binding obligations will make reducing public budgets difficult, and opportunities to take early savings should be taken wherever possible. If the Government doesn't make a start it is possible that significant savings will not be achieved until 2012 or even later, never mind 2011. That sort of outcome is likely to make the pressure to use taxes as the main tool of deficit reduction irresistible, which in turn is likely to stifle private-sector growth and job creation.
The economic case for immediate spending cuts could hardly be stronger.
Chief Economist, Institute of Directors London SW1
The burka and beyond
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown ("Stand up against the burka", 16 May) argues very convincingly that society requires facial identification. However there are many more salient reasons why the burka deserves to be banned.
Some male criminals have evaded the law by concealing their faces; one of the 21/7 failed bombers briefly evaded arrest by wearing a full veil. In November 2006, two men (posing as a couple) robbed a jewellery store in Ontario, escaping with around $1m in jewels. A burka may also cover signs of facial injury inflicted by abusers, and it restricts peripheral vision, essential to safe driving.
It is not illiberal to ban the burka; in fact one can consider it to be the opposite. It allows women to escape the confines of a mobile imprisonment; it gives them back the choice to have control over their appearance away from religious authority and dogma. A discussion on the necessity of a burka would be prudent, concealment of the issue would not.
The call by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to stand up against the burka is sadly misplaced. Muslim women are facing legal attacks on what they wear in a number of countries. We have to look beyond the veil to understand why.
When a woman is fined €500 for wearing the veil in public in the northern Italian town of Novara, this has more to do with racism than with sensibilities over religion, let alone women's rights. The far right across Europe are using this issue of women's dress to whip up opposition to Muslims as such. This racism would not end if every woman bared their head, it would just move on to other targets.
We rightly oppose attempts to force women to cover their heads in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Why do we then think it acceptable for western states, many with a dubious record of racism, to be equally peremptory in their decrees?
As an "average Liberal constituency activist", described by your columnist Bruce Anderson (17 May) as "an angry fanatic, with shallow, thoughtless opinions, utterly unscrupulous on the doorstep, ready to spread any smear or tell any lie", should I adopt the full burka to disguise myself?
Hazel Grove, Greater Manchester
Our mother's last journey
Jeremy Laurance says he will transport his next relative's body to the crematorium himself to avoid the high undertaker's charge ("Think the cost of living is high? Try the cost of dying", 11 May). I can recommend it.
When my mother died, her estate was not enough to cover the cost of a funeral and she would have been horrified to have nothing left for children and grandchildren. My brother and I investigated the costs and found, as Jeremy Laurance did, that you have to pay hundreds of pounds for a hearse to deliver a coffin to the crematorium, so we did it ourselves.
We cleaned and polished my hatchback and drove it to an undertaker, who had agreed to sell us a coffin. With the back seats and the front passenger seat folded flat, it fitted in easily. We then drove to the hospital, where the mortuary attendant put the body in the coffin while we waited in an anteroom. After a few moments for identification, we fixed the lid on and wheeled the coffin out to the car.
At the crematorium, the attendant provided another trolley and we wheeled the coffin in. Our mother was quite small and the coffin light, so this was easy for the two of us.
Everyone involved in the process was extremely helpful and considerate. Because these activities are matter-of-fact and everyday for them, it helped us treat the situation with respect but without fuss, which our mother would have wanted.
This would not suit everyone, and we might not do it again in different circumstances. However, it is good to know it is not difficult and just requires a little planning and a few phone calls to make the arrangements.
Name and address supplied
Vote for Ed and a Labour future
Labour stands at that once-in-a-generation waypoint. It must choose whether to opt for a new splash of red paint and more of the same, or a wholesale refurbishment with a new appeal.
The Liberal Democrat rejection of a progressive coalition with Labour in favour of the Conservatives alienates them from the anti-Tory vote. Labour must embrace this demographic now; but a reinforcement of the Blairite model asserted by Big Brother Miliband will not attract an electorate that grew disillusioned with that ideology.
Labour instead has a rare opportunity to elect a leader who can oversee a renewed commitment to building a social model which appeals to the majority of voters – not a return to the failed ideologies of the past, but a programme that provides social safety nets for those who genuinely need them, while ensuring those capable of contributing to society do so.
This might involve recipients of Jobseekers' Allowance working for three hours a day around training for job applications and interviews. It should involve reaching out to disillusioned groups to convince them that their voice will be heard (including the female vote during a time that the other two main parties appear less capable of doing so). It ought to involve a sensible taxation programme, as suggested by the Liberal Democrats in their recent manifesto, where appropriate taxes are applied to those who take the most from our society and environment.
Whichever way Labour presents itself to the electorate during the next five years, it will maximise its appeal by choosing as its leader Ed Miliband. Only under such a leader can Labour return to power at the first time of asking.
Newhaven, East Sussex
I have been puzzling over the lack of women putting themselves forward for the leadership of New Labour. Now I read in Robert Graves's account of Tiberius's letter to the Senate on the death of his mother, Livia, that women should avoid an arena "for which they are not fitted, and which rouse in them all those worst feelings of arrogance and petulance to which the female sex is naturally prone". Leave it to the chaps, then.
Many years ago Tony Benn made the case in his book Arguments for Democracy against the Prime Minister having the sole power to dissolve Parliament, saying that this power should only be exercised by Parliament.
We now have a Conservative prime minister proposing this reform. Do the Labour Party and Tony Benn agree with this democratic devolving of power, or once again are Labour on the side of the total power given to minority parties by first-past-the-post?
By reminding us that in 1997 Labour "had an untouchable to majority" Dr Mick Wilkinson (letter, 13 May) has highlighted a very sad fact. This majority equates precisely to one seat for every single death sustained by British forces in Iraq, who died looking for something that was never there in the first place.
As I watched the man who financed and supported our shameful invasion of Iraq depart No 10, I noted that in the figure of 179 there is a fateful symmetry.
Save our fish from the EU
Your lead article on 15 May heralded the good news about the recovery in cod stocks in the North Sea, rightly pointing to the benefits of conservation by lower quotas, but with little mention of the main culprit of the decline – the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Fortunately your leading article corrects this imbalance by pointing to the drastic decline in stocks under the CFP regime.
The CFP was imposed on the UK when it joined the then Common Market. In effect we gave away huge areas of fishing grounds (out to the 200-mile limit) as the price tag for joining. Its cost to the UK economy now runs into hundreds of billions of pounds – much greater than the better-known CAP.
A further result has been that white fish has changed from being a cheap food for working people into one often more expensive than meat. The CFP is the main reason why Iceland, Norway and Greenland have not joined the EU.
However there is possible change in the offing which we should be prepared for. Iceland has now declared its interest in joining the EU, but naturally wishes to keep its own fishing grounds (which have not suffered the same sort of decline in stocks as in EU waters). Britain should back this position enthusiastically, adding the rider of course that it should apply to us also. Let's not make the same mistake as we did in the 1970s when we opposed Iceland's extension of its fishing grounds to 200 miles. This time we should work together to abolish the CFP.
Nonsensical objection to PR
Andrew Grice (14 May) quotes Ian Liddell-Grainger as saying that electoral reform means hung parliaments and MPs you neither know nor see. This is a comment often made by those opposed to such a change and it suggests that under the present arrangement we are all on familiar terms with our local MP. This is nonsense.
Against the notion that PR would lead to representation for odious extremist parties, would people rather that the only way such parties could express themselves was by illegal and underground activities? Let them out in the open so we can see who they are and what they want. If it's a protest vote, let's see what they are protesting about.
Let's take a look at the last two election results.
In 2005 Labour won 35.3 per cent of the vote compared with the Conservatives' 32.3 per cent. Labour formed a government with 158 more seats than the Conservatives.
In 2010 the Conservatives won 36.1 per cent of the vote compared with Labour's 29 per cent. The Conservatives have 48 seats more than Labour.
Can anyone doubt that David Cameron should be in favour of electoral reform?
Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe (letter, 12 May) asserts that aliens are unlikely to be a threat, being a long way away, and that viruses from space are a more real danger. Where would these viruses come from? Viruses cannot live without a host, and the only viruses that infect us are viruses that evolved with us or similar animals as hosts. If there are infections coming from space, then surely the aliens must be not far behind. Maybe their first words will be "Take me to your pharmacist."
Gaia steps in
According to the Gaia theory, Mother Nature acts to regulate her own environment in the interests of maintaining healthy balance. It's possible, then, that by spewing out volcanic ash in Iceland, and so grounding a number of aeroplanes, Gaia is taking action to prevent global warming, where our political leaders have failed. Sir James Lovelock, the time to speak is now.
Christina Patterson (15 May) states: "Wisteria has become a symbol for me of our new, not-quite-blue Government." Unlike the wisteria "hanging in great festoons on the posh white houses" near her office, the new growth on my own wisteria, growing in a more exposed position, has been destroyed by recent frosts. Is this an omen?
West Hagbourne, Oxfordshire
Perspectives on high-speed rail
TGV works for everyone
David Gunning's letter on high-speed rail travel in France (7 May) is grossly misleading. His only example involves the atypical London to Strasbourg rail route – are his clients mainly MEPs? – and relies heavily on comparisons with air fares. Astoundingly, for a professional, he omits to mention the most popular high-speed rail link used by Britons: Eurostar, which now has a dominant share of cross-Channel passenger traffic.
The primary aim of the French TGV network is not to whisk MEPs to Strasbourg, nor Brits to their holiday homes in the Dordogne, but to enable the French to get around their own country a lot faster. And in this respect, Ally Horne's comments (letter, 28 April), that high-speed trains just "enable the wealthy passenger to arrive 10 minutes earlier", are nonsense.
French passengers of all backgrounds use the TGVs in vast numbers. The high-speed trains have lopped hours off journey times: you can now get from Paris to Marseille in three hours by train. And the main comparison is rail versus road rather than plane.
An example: Bordeaux to Paris. You can take the TGV, read The Independent and enjoy the odd verre de rouge and arrive in the city centre 600 kilometres away in three hours. The price of a non-discounted ticket is around £60: contrast that and the journey time with those for London to Glasgow. Or you can drive, taking twice the time and involving protracted battles with lorry drivers on the motorways and with everybody in the motorised scrum on the Paris periphérique. Once the motorway tolls, petrol and price of parking in Paris are taken into account, there's no difference in price.
I won't go into environmental considerations, since the British road and air lobbies and the eco-refuseniks find them too upsetting.
Let's catch the tram instead
In support of David Gunning, may I put a different slant on his point? For a fraction of the astronomical cost of a new high-speed rail line from London to the north, the Government could fund, or part-fund, new-generation tramways in the cities which need them most.
At present, when they are proposed, government instinct is to place as many hurdles as possible in their way. Yet the few schemes which have miraculously completed the obstacle course in recent years have proved successful and popular, eliminating many car journeys and saving much precious fuel. Think of Nottingham and Manchester, for example.
Germany, not exactly an economy to be despised, never destroyed its traditional tramways, but modernised and expanded them. It continues to do so. Switzerland, too, and Melbourne, the operator of the biggest single network in the world.
After the Second World War, France did make the same mistake as the UK, closing almost all its systems in the interest of other highway users. It recognised its own folly a couple of decades ago, and has since been commissioning new systems with an urgency that puts the UK to shame. None has failed.
New government, new strategy, perhaps? Here's hoping.
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