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Monday 11 April 2011
Letters: The AV referendum
Time to bust these AV myths
Contrary to what some people argue, AV does not imperil stable government, nor first past the post lead to it (Letters, 4 April).
Canada conducts its general elections under the FPTP system. Nevertheless, Canadians will be heading to the polls in a federal election for the fourth time in seven years as the past three general elections resulted in minority governments. The current Coalition Government in the UK is also the result of an election held under FPTP conditions.
Nor does AV benefit extremists. Extremist candidates are much more likely to gain 29.4 per cent of the votes (sufficient to win Norwich South in the 2010 general election under FPTP) than to win more than 50 per cent of the votes in a given constituency, even when second and/or third preferences are taken into account.
It is also said that AV will frequently lead to coalitions which is bad because the party manifestos people voted for are not implemented. But there is no reason whatsoever why a party manifesto that won the support of 35 per cent (Labour in 2005) or 36 per cent (Tories in 2010) of voters, and was thus opposed by almost two-thirds of the voting electorate, should be implemented in "pure" form. Parties always have the chance to win the support of a majority of voters. If they do not, they and their supporters should accept the necessity of compromise.
AV is not an ideal system, but it does ensure that future MPs would have the tacit (or perhaps only lukewarm) support of more than 50 per cent of voters in their respective constituencies and is thus a step forward in the attempt to make every vote count.
Hastings, East Sussex
The first-past-the-post system is no longer fit for purpose in the multi-party democracy we now live in. Most MPs are now elected on a minority of votes, and the NO2AV campaign is desperate to continue exploiting this weakness. There is no solid philosophical argument on its side so it is left with dreaming up scary myths about AV in the hope of conning the electorate into voting no.
Don't let them fool you! AV is a doddle. You rank the acceptable candidates in order of preference, so tactical voting is a thing of the past. AV preserves the constituency link and, as now, everyone has just one vote, which is counted as many times as there are rounds of counting. AV makes it far more difficult for extremist parties, because only their supporters will rank them at all. Under AV successful candidates need the support of at least 50 per cent of voters, so divisive campaigns are liable to backfire.
AV is a brilliantly simple enhancement to the current system which will make for a stronger, healthier democracy.
Opponents of the AV voting system argue that it allows some people to have more votes than others. This argument is complete nonsense.
Anyone whose first vote is the only one that is counted should be delighted – it means that the person he or she wanted as MP is elected. Anyone whose second choice is called into play should be slightly disappointed – it means that his or her first choice will not be the MP, but at least the second choice is elected. Anyone whose third, fourth or more choice is called into play should be extremely disappointed – it means that someone well down his or her list is elected.
People who have only one vote taken into account are the fortunate ones – they have an MP who was their first choice.
Let's have CCTV in the classroom
The instance of teachers walking out at Darwen Vale High School in Lancashire because pupils are running amok should not be seen as an isolated incident (report, 7 April). This sort of adolescent anarchy prevails all over the country.
There are solutions. In Switzerland I worked in a college which specialised in dealing with unruly students, where every classroom had CCTV that was relayed to a bank of screens in the principal's office. Students (and teachers) knew absolutely that they were being watched and recorded, and the result was sobering.
This was before the internet was as sophisticated a tool as it is now, but in the 21st century we have a system that can and ought to allow every parent, every probation officer and social worker, every educational psychologist and police officer to watch what's going on in real time within any classroom in the country.
This would probably do more for educational standards than the ludicrously prescriptive National Curriculum with all its cod accountability, because it would force teachers and pupils, headteachers and governors, parents and politicians to be genuinely answerable for what goes on in Britain's classrooms.
As a mathematics teacher, I like the fact that most mobile phones have calculators built in and more advanced ones have scientific calculators built in.
But cyber-bullying and accessing pornography during school time are problems; can we not insulate classrooms so that students can't receive a signal?
Filming in classrooms can only be prevented by immediately confiscating phones and deleting the files. Teachers need to have the power to do this.
West Bromwich, West Midlands
Can journalism be taught?
Kelvin MacKenzie ("I'd shut all the journalism colleges down" 8 April) is right about one thing. A degree in media studies is not a preparation for a career in journalism and no student should be misled into imagining it is. Beyond that his argument is utterly misguided, deplorably out of touch with modern journalism and atypically devoid of common sense.
There are in British universities a handful of excellent degrees in convergent multimedia journalism that combine high academic standards in traditional disciplines including history, politics and law, with superb teaching of print, broadcast and online skills. They can be identified via two key characteristics: exceptionally high admissions standards, usually including interview and written test, and professional accreditation by the National Council for the Training of Journalists.
In the Centre for Journalism here at Kent, rigorously selected students from a diverse range of backgrounds learn to work to a professional standard. They do mandatory work experience at the KM Group. They get published in print and online and they make broadcast-quality radio and television. Some of them have had work published in The Independent.
The world has changed a lot since print skills alone made a good journalist. Today's reporters need computer and broadcast skills Kelvin has never acquired. Perhaps he would like to learn. We'd be pleased to help.
Professor Tim Luckhurst,
Centre for Journalism, University of Kent
BT's good old days recalled
Aidan Harrison's description of BT's contemptuous handling of its customers will be recognised instantly by anyone who's had the misfortune to need help with a problem (Letters, 8 April).
In another respect BT is also contemptuous of the public at large as compared with the old regime. In the days of "the apparatus of the state", for about 40 years from the late 1920s, government buildings were required to be well-built and compatible with their surroundings. As a result, telephone exchanges generally enhanced their environment and were well maintained. That was particularly true of the small rural types which graced many villages with brick, stone, or wooden variants to suit the locality. The effect was completed by the small area of land dedicated to the exchange, available for extension if need be, but often let out for garden cultivation in the meantime.
Contrast that with today. In Spalding, the dirty, neglected telephone exchange, with its ugly forest of mobile aerials on top, is one of the two most reviled buildings in town.
Neither pride in itself nor sense of civic responsibility, seems to trouble BT's management.
Yes, BT excel themselves these days. As I am moving house, I have had some dealings with them recently. On my first call to them, arranging the reconnection of the phone in the house to which I am moving, I was told that I could not have the existing phone number at the property. I was given a new number but warned that the number could not be guaranteed until the line was up and running. I was also asked if I wanted to be ex-directory, which I did.
A few days later I had occasion to ring them again. While confirming the original arrangements, I was told that I was not getting the number I had been told, nor the original number, but indeed a totally different number. When I asked what it was, the woman I was speaking to said she was not allowed to tell me because it was ... ex-directory.
Trauma of US and UK troops
I was thrilled to read that the disparity in rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among US and UK troops is the result of heroic resistance to false American theories by staunch, chisel-chinned British medical experts ("US soldiers are seven times as likely as UK troops to develop post-traumatic stress" by Ethan Watters, 8 April). Bravo!
I was disappointed that there was no consideration of anything which the troops themselves might bring to the equation. In particular, qualities and expectations that working-class British servicemen and women might bring with them, derived from a class culture built up in contrast to and often in conflict with the cultural norms more familiar to the same medical experts.
Ethan Watters should read Crime and Punishment. Murdering other human beings is an unnatural activity. Soldiers are people who contract to murder other human beings on behalf of the state. Post traumatic stress is not a mental illness: it is in part at least the voice of a soldier's outraged humanity.
Whether in the US or in the UK, PTSD sufferers are still a minority among those who have been exposed to traumatic conditions. What if attention was focused on those who haven't fallen victim to PTSD (or to depression) to see how they have managed, through their day-to-day activities, to overcome the after-effects of the same adversity?
Could it be that sufferers were vulnerable people to begin with and those who have escaped PTSD had a lifestyle that was better able to cope with stressful events in general? This, rather than brain chemistry or psychotherapy might produce a better framework for helping PTSD sufferers.
Be alert to signs of bowel cancer
The Bowel Cancer Screening Project's smear test ("A test too far even for a Rabelaisian", 9 April) has the potential to detect a small proportion of bowel cancers. The project's covering letter, worryingly, does not mention constipation as a symptom, albeit not the most common one.
My wife died of the disease last September, two years after being diagnosed after several months of intermittent constipation from which she had never previously suffered.
Howard Jacobson implies that he may also be suffering from constipation. If I were him I'd ask for a proper investigation and not just rely on the smear test.
Labour Health spokesman
House of Lords, London SW1
Ozone depleted by climate change
Your leader ("The greatest emergency of all is being ignored", 6 April) points to the similarities between man-made ozone depletion and climate change. In fact the two are directly linked.
Stratospheric ozone depletion takes place on the surface of ice crystals, so is greatly increased when the stratospheric temperature falls. Global warming traps heat at a lower level in the atmosphere, thus cooling the stratosphere and providing the ideal conditions for ozone depletion to occur.
This phenomenon neatly illustrates the way that man-made releases can interact to destabilise the atmosphere and threaten the systems that sustain life on this planet.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
EU students' fees
How does the Government intend to recoup loans to EU students studying in England, who will presumably have the same rights to them as UK students? It may be difficult if they do not remain in the UK to work after graduation.
W P Cox
After the event, how might the British public appraise the forthcoming Royal wedding and its cost? It will probably depend on whether the event is viewed as a solemn royal occasion, or a celebrity do. Britons have shown a willingness to pay for the first as a matter of patriotic duty. They expect the second to provide free entertainment.
ID in schools
I wonder if those who support the teaching of creationism and intelligent design (creationism in drag) in science classes (letters, 9 April) also support children being taught in biology classes the alternative proposition on human reproduction, namely that the stork brings babies?
John Walsh's entertaining piece on snobs (5 April) seems to be less a rogue's gallery of the grand and more an exhibition of low self-esteem. Why else the need to fantasise one's superiority?
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Perspectives on the UK deficit
Brown's duplicity on the 'golden rule'
Although it pains me to do so, I have to agree with Bob Fennell (Letters, 5 April) in his assessment of Labour's lack of fiscal responsibility over the past 13 years – specifically his point about Gordon Brown's decision to run a large deficit in boom times.
I remember the exact day when the scales finally fell from my eyes with regard to Gordon Brown's "golden rule" (of balancing the budget across the economic cycle). Your report of 20 July 2005 stated: "The Chancellor yesterday announced the Treasury had decided the current economic cycle had begun in 1997, two years earlier than previously thought." Fancy that. This now allowed surpluses from the early days of the Labour government to be included in the calculation of the golden rule across a 10-year economic cycle (1997-2007).
If Gordon Brown had to scrabble around adjusting start and end dates of imagined (and recession-free) economic cycles in order to try to satisfy the golden rule during a period of continuous growth, the finances of this country were bound to be in a fairly parlous state if and when any downturn occurred. And so it has proved.
Keynes is invoked but not understood
Kelvin Hopkins is keen to invoke Keynesian deficit spending as an economic stimulus to the economy (Letters, 8 April). What he forgets, as so many of his Labour colleagues do, is that Keynesianism is about cyclical deficit spending. In other words, spending more than you earn only when in a recession.
Hopkins carefully omits to mention the other part of Keynesianism, which is that governments should not run structural deficits, ie spending more than receipts during times of economic well-being. It is during such times of plenty that surpluses should be used to reduce the total debt and the size of the ongoing interest bill.
It is precisely because Gordon Brown and Ed Balls ran a structural deficit between 2001 and the start of the recession in 2008, that the interest bill was already so large.
Tell the truth about the country's debt
It seems self-evident to me that any enterprise where its chief financial officer expects to eliminate its debt over five years cannot possibly be in the dire condition claimed for it. That is particularly so if he has the oft-used ability to print money and inflate it away. How many FTSE-100 CFOs could do that?
Richard Burton Westhill
Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire
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