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Saturday 2 April 2011
Letters: What price a 'strong leader'?
In your Tuesday Essay, Paul Vallely drew attention to the North Korean-sounding "strong leader model" of council leadership in Bury and elsewhere. The following day, Council Leader Bob Bibby told a council meeting that as a "strong leader" he had no obligation to seek their approval for his plans. He was only inviting them to comment and vote on his "transformation strategy" because of his commitment to transparency.
He did not extend such a courtesy to the public gallery. The strategy report appeared only after the deadline for public questions had passed, making it impossible to ask meaningful questions about it. It included a commitment to further "involvement and consultation" of the public as individual departments come up for review over the next few months. We asked for more information but our question was out of order and was ignored.
Council employees don't seem to be included; there are widespread rumours of instructions to them from their managers not to tell people about cuts and restructuring of their workplaces.
We in Bury Action Group are just discovering to our horror the extent to which technical-sounding changes in council structures have already undermined local democracy. I am sure others elsewhere have similar experiences.
The strategy our wise leader has adopted opens the possibility that hidden bureaucratic processes will lead to the outsourcing of many council services. These will be managed under long-term contracts and totally removed from democratic scrutiny. All that can prevent this is our honourable leader's commitment to transparency, and perhaps our campaigns to remind him of this and to work vigorously and persistently to keep the issue in the public eye.
Authors' school project chopped
John Walsh (31 March) highlights the dangerous consequences of "a single ignorant stroke of the Arts Council's pen"; there have been far too many such ignorant strokes for the latest funding decision process to be considered in any way fair. And the Arts Council is patting itself on the back for not spreading misery too thinly.
The National Association of Writers in Education is another organisation that has suffered a total cut, despite its work being entirely in line with Arts Council priorities. Its membership consists of professional authors committed to working in schools and other educational and community contexts.
It has worked extensively with the Arts Council to put creativity at the heart of education, establishing pupils' entitlement to have contact with a practising professional writer. Our recent research project in this area, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, showed that pupils benefiting from such an experience performed better than their peers. It is completely unfathomable to us why the organisation is now being treated in this way.
But as with everything in this process, the so-called clarity is missing. The British Federation of Brass Bands has an uplift of 141 per cent. I am sure it does equally good work, but I fail to see why such random cuts and uplifts should be legal in the distribution of public money.
Director, National Association of Writers in Education, York
Uncut not guilty of mob violence
Last Saturday's large demonstration in London ("UK Uncut – Is it wise to criminalise respectable protest groups?", Opinion, 31 March) was an example of excellent co-operation between the police and the Trades Union Congress, together with protesters from many other quarters, in ensuring a peaceful demonstration during which the views of groups and individuals were openly expressed on issues about which they felt passionately.
Policing is traditionally by public consent and the relationship between the public and police is of paramount importance in a civilised society. Invariably, there are lunatic fringe elements with their own agendas who seek to disrupt lawful demonstrations. These are the ones who get the headlines, as they try to draw others into violence and create a "them and us" hostile attitude towards police.
There were examples of these tactics in violent attacks on premises in the West End of London last Saturday, with balaclava-clad "Black Bloc" gangs, using mobiles to communicate. When officers arrived, these thugs stripped off their disguises and merged with the crowds.
To deal with such disruptive and hostile elements, "kettling" was evolved as a police tactic to control such unlawful behaviour, causing a bitter public reaction because the process inconvenienced and traumatised the lawful demonstrators among whom the culprits were embedded.
UK Uncut should not be tarred with the same brush as "Black Bloc", because it is peaceful and does not contain balaclava-clad anarchists bent on violence and destruction, and does not threaten to disrupt peaceful demonstrations on the streets or require police to "kettle" their activities.
Former DCI, Metropolitan Police, London W5
How to engineer more engineers
James Dyson (letter, 31 March) says that we produce 22,000 engineering graduates a year, but need to find ways of keeping them here to help fill the 37,000 engineering vacancies and help rebalance the country's economy. It's not just that graduates go to work abroad. The son of a friend got a very good degree in engineering from a university in England but took a job with a financial company in the City of London, and, no doubt, is earning lots of money. Who can blame him?
But what a waste of ability and of the expertise and cost of educating him in a subject he has instantly rejected. Getting engineering graduates to become engineers seems more to the point.
I was most interested to read James Dyson's letter (31 March) highlighting the issue of immigration and higher education, pointing out that Britain has 37,000 engineering vacancies but produces just 22,000 graduates.
It might interest others to note that Loretto School in Edinburgh has agreed a formal link-up with Edinburgh Napier University, in what is thought to be the first of its kind in Scotland.
Loretto pupils, aged 16 and 17, attend first-year or second-year engineering (among others) lectures at Edinburgh Napier University as part of a scheme to give them an edge in the fight for a university place and ultimately to encourage them to stay on in the UK after graduation.
At Loretto, we have seen a significant increase in the number of our sixth-form pupils making serious inquiries into studying engineering at university.
Loretto School, Edinburgh
Invincible on an armless mission
The former aircraft carrier HMS Invincible is under tow by the tug Sirocco from Portsmouth to a scrapyard in Turkey, a three-week passage of some 2,800 miles. She entered the Mediterranean on April Fool's Day.
This is evidence, surely, that the British government, irked as it is by the criticism of its flawed decision to be rid of the carrier HMS Ark Royal and the Harriers, does at least have a sense of humour in adversity. David Cameron can now claim that he has sent a carrier to the Mediterranean.
She's an empty vessel and thus characterises this island government's vacuous approach to maritime aspects of defence.
(Lt-Cmdr RN, rtd), London NW1
I like the idea of encouraging Libyan dissidents to defect to London (Comment, 1 April). But why stop at Libya? The British Tourist Board should target dictatorships throughout the world, "Come to Britain where it rains democracy and the only torture is the weather".
Terence Blacker produces a list of exceptionally annoying people (Viewspaper, 1 April), but with supreme irony fails to provide a "Most Annoying Commentator" category. Who's he protecting?
Wings of a Dov
I was intrigued to see that Elizabeth Forbes, in her obituary of the fine tenor Robert Tear (30 March), considered his Covent Garden debut as Dov in Michael Tippett's The Knot Garden to be "one of his finest performances to date". Does this imply that we may be able to assess the quality of his future performances, in the Heavenly Choir, through the new medium of "cloud music" from cyberspace?
Perspectives on voting reform
Hypocrisy of the Tories
The Conservative No to AV campaign has conceded the central point about MPs having to receive a majority of votes under AV. After all, Boris Johnson won the London mayoral election under the supplementary vote, a simpler version of AV.
The Conservatives never promised to abolish this electoral system in either of their manifestos after 2001. In fact, they are now proposing police commissioners elected via the supplementary vote. As for "losers" becoming winners, it should be noted that David Cameron won the 2005 Conservative leadership race after initially coming second behind David Davis.
The No to AV campaign, led by Baroness Warsi, instead focuses on unfounded scare stories regarding extremists such as the BNP. It is true that BNP voters will have their second preferences counted far more than Labour or Tory supporters. But that's because they'll get derisory support and come bottom or near-bottom of any poll. Further, under AV it would be harder for them to win a seat because they would need majority support in a constituency. This explains why they are against AV.
Baroness Warsi cites the 2005 election in Dewsbury in which she lost to Labour by 4,000 votes and the BNP polled 5,000 votes (typically they'd be lucky to get 500 votes in most seats). She claimed that this might encourage the leading parties to "pander" to BNP voters. Is she really saying that she or the Labour candidate, Shahid Malik, would have pandered to the BNP?
After Baroness Warsi's remarks about AV and the BNP, you report one senior Tory MP as saying: "It looks as if she didn't think it through. There's a growing feeling that she should be moved to a job as a departmental minister."
I wonder if the senior MP thought through that idea. If so, it shows an egregious contempt for the national interest set beside the party interest. Surely if she is not competent to run the Conservative Party, she is not good enough to run a government department. Or doesn't that matter?
The vision of Oz
Last Saturday, the voters of New South Wales (Australia) deftly exploded several AV myths when they elected a new assembly. Did they get a hung parliament? No. Were a host of extremist parties elected? No. Was a bad government emphatically booted out? Yes, losing more than half its seats. Did it take ages to get the result? No, it was in the Sunday papers.
The Sunday papers in Australia, that is. Curiously, most of the British press didn't seem to think a story about AV in action was relevant.
Whipstick, Victoria, Australia
To AV, or AV not
Those who disapprove of AV can turn the ballot paper into a FPTP one by marking only the first choice. But would "X" instead of "1" make it a spoilt paper? Also, what happens if you start your preferences at the second or third choice?
My dictionary thinks AV means Authorised Version.
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