Voting reform, Jerusalem and others

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The Independent Online

Only a mass movement will win the case for voting reform

Only a mass movement will win the case for voting reform

Sir: The Independent is quite correct to highlight the flaws in our electoral system; it is also correct to look to the wider problems we face in our political system.

We have now had eight years of a government that has given the democratic reform lobby plenty of nods and winks but has repeatedly failed to deliver where it really counts. Their response to 2001's record low turnout was not to address the substantive issue and make it worth voting, but to make it as easy as possible. The result has been growing fraud and lost votes and a paltry 2 per cent increase in turnout. Their response to the House of Lords' increased belligerence has not been to ensure it is subject to democratic accountability but to explore ways to limit its power. Their response to 1.5 million people marching against a war in Iraq was simply to say they were wrong.

Over the past couple of months, Charter88 and the New Politics Network have set political parties and individual candidates the "Democracy Challenge". Our report, published just prior to the general election, shows that while all the major parties were keen to talk about trust and accountability, the electorate were offered very little in terms of concrete solutions. Even the Liberal Democrats, with their laudable commitment to constitutional reform, failed to highlight these issues during the campaign.

This can't go on. We need to rebuild a grassroots campaign for democracy. Charter88 and the New Politics Network have been doing much of the spadework over the past year, launching our campaign on House of Lords reform and working within the Make Votes Count coalition. The time has come for this to go beyond the usual suspects of campaign groups and think tanks and reach out to the wider population.

The next few weeks will be crucial in building this mass movement. If you were depressed by the conduct and outcome of the general election, now is the time to make your stand.



Electoral system narrows the debate

Sir: John Bercow's belief (Opinion, 10 May) that the Conservative Party now needs to make a pitch for the centre ground provides a timely complement to The Independent's calls for electoral reform. The current system appears to be offering voters less and less of a choice between the main parties. The centre ground is becoming swamped by three major parties, to the extent where the old apathetic's cry of "they're all the same" is beginning to gather some weight.

The Liberal Democrats are looking at curtailing their policies on taxation. This has been one of the few areas where a policy differed markedly between parties, and offered voters the chance to vote on a fundamental principle - that of how public spending should be financed. In the election campaign, key policy areas were ignored - Europe, the environment, the pensions shortfall.

This narrowing of debate and restriction in choice is, I feel, a result of an electoral system that repeatedly leads to a majority government being elected by a minority of those who choose to vote. Electoral campaigns are being played out increasingly within the marginal constituencies, where parties are able to identify the key cohorts of voters to whom they must appeal, and targeting their message appropriately. The resulting promises often seem a long distance from a fundamental party vision of the direction in which the country should be moving.

Whilst critics of PR-based systems claim that these systems will lead to weaker governments, a PR system would provide voters with a broader set of alternatives which the elected (coalition) government would then be forced to prioritise and address.



Sir: Mark Stickings (letters, 12 May) repeats the common fallacy that German-style PR gives excessive power to small parties. That's actually only true if the big parties allow it to be. A "grand coalition" of Christian and Social Democrats governed for several years in the Sixties, and a similar coalition has just taken over the regional government of Schleswig-Holstein.

What the system does do is put a brake on radical change. With less than 45 per cent of the electorate behind it Thatcherism would never have got off the ground. I would once have said that was a big point in PR's favour, but that was before I got acquainted with the German labour market and the slow process of economic reform here. There is no perfect electoral system.



Sir: I am a Spanish citizen. Before I had lived in the UK I thought your electoral system was outdated and not really democratic. Now I would say that the British system is considerably more democratic than the Spanish one and that your electoral system may have some connection with it.

In Spain the proportional representation system precludes close contact between electors and elected; writing to your MP is something unheard of in Spain. MPs are more accountable to the party than to electors and therefore tend to lose their independence against the party machinery that has the power to remove them from their lists.

The British system facilitates accountability of the MP before his electors and at the same time offers him certain independence against the party. If things come to the worst and the policies of his party go against his electors' interest or wishes he can fight an election as independent, and this possibility is the base of his independence. This independence is crucial for a democratic system. It is extremely rare for a Spanish MP to vote against his party.

This democratic deficit may be a consequence of the Spanish culture rather than of the electoral system and perhaps would not occur in the UK. However, any change requires careful thought.



Sir: I congratulate The Independent for taking a stand on promoting electoral reform in Britain. Yes, it is true that no electoral system is perfect, but some are less perfect than others, and first-past-the-post is the least perfect of them all. No other system would produce the grossly unfair result of the last election, where Labour secured just 35.2 per cent of the vote but 55 per cent of the seats in Parliament.

In all British general elections since 1945 no party has received

a majority of the vote. Britain is the only country in the EU which does not use a proportional voting system.

Britain is one of just three countries in the "western" world that do not use a proportional system, the other two being Canada and the USA. A number of countries have switched from first-past-the-post to a proportional system. Examples are Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. No country has switched from a proportional system to first-past-the-post.



Sir: Fair votes? I don't want fair votes. I want a system that puts the people in control. Government by the people - that's why I want STV and I want it as soon as possible.

Frank Field, who should know better, comes out against PR because he "cannot pass the buck to other MPs as I could if we had multi-member seats" (article, 13 May). Yeah, right. With STV he would pass the buck during his term in office and at the next election he would be out, no matter how "safe" his Birkenhead constituency might be.

He would be voted out by Labour voters, who would rank the multiple Labour candidates by preference and, lo, he is last on the list, and out of office.



The day to make poverty history

Sir: Monday 16 May is World Debt Day. Seven years ago 70,000 people formed a human chain around the G8 summit in Birmingham to demand the cancellation of debt. Now, seven weeks before the G8 returns to the UK, we are still demanding an end to the debt crisis. Every day the world's poorest countries still pay £30m on debt; every day 30,000 children die because of poverty.

There is clear evidence that debt relief works: it has enabled Tanzania to have a 66 per cent increase in school attendance; and Uganda to give 2.2 million more people access to clean water. But current debt relief initiatives have delivered too little too slowly. They have been used to force harmful economic policies onto indebted countries.

The cancellation of debt is an act of justice, not charity. Trade unionists believe in justice that gives every human being the dignity of life and liberty and freedom from exploitation. That's why we are urging the Prime Minister to use his chairmanship of the G8 to ensure that unpayable debts of the world's poorest countries are cancelled in full, by fair and transparent means - and thus help to make poverty history.



A Good Samaritan in Jerusalem

Sir: A few years ago our daughter fell sick in Jerusalem, where she knew no one. She had booked to stay at the New Imperial Hotel, now secretly sold it seems by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos I ("The man who sold Jerusalem", 10 May).

It was the Sabbath and she had no ready cash. Mr Dijani, the tenant proprietor whose family has run the hotel for fifty years, called his own doctor and lent her money to pay for medicine. In reply to our thanks, he said it was what he hoped anyone would do if his own child were in need.

The simple humanity in this Good Samaritan deed contrasts sharply with this politically motivated property deal aimed at dislodging Palestinians.



Hoodies banned at shopping mall

Sir: So Blair and Prescott think it's OK to bar young people from a shopping centre because of what they are wearing, rather than anything they are doing.

I suppose this is to be expected from politicians who approve of locking people up without trial, and one of whose cronies recently said that members of ethnic minorities should accept that they are more likely to get stopped and searched by the police.

Perhaps they will now combine these policies and detain without trial anyone who wears clothes they don't approve of.



Sir: Janet Street-Porter (Opinion, 12 May) captured perfectly my feelings on the nasty attitude of Bluewater shopping centre and its silly dress code.

Whatever next? Am I also to be vetted at the glass door of this ugly cathedral to consumerism on my choice of apparel? Will my husband be asked to wear a tie, will my children be given a score gauging the possible fear factor to other "guests" caused by their clothing?

All of the suggestions put forward by Janet Street-Porter for a youth club, BMX track etc should be seriously considered by the management. By alienating young people they are also effectively closing the door on their parents. I will not shop at Bluewater, the same way I will not buy my Independent from any newsagent that sports the narrow-minded notice, "Only two schoolchildren allowed at a time".



Sir: Janet Street-Porter's snobbish, sour and ill-informed attack on Bluewater and the surrounding "wasteland" has no place in a quality newspaper.

The Bluewater complex includes six lakes, a nature trail, a putting course, facilities for boating and fishing, a skating rink, an adventure playground, a Community Room, a comfortable multiplex cinema and at least two quality restaurants. Facilities for young children and wheelchair users are numerous and excellent.



Sir: The hoodie generation have grown up within an underfunded education system, are constantly being fed nutritionally suspect food and suffer from a curriculum that allows insufficiently time for creative arts and sports.

Vast new housing developments are robbing the young of areas where they can legitimately play without disturbing their neighbours. Once they have discovered the relaxing effects of alcohol and drugs the rest is all too often a self-fulfilling prophecy. We should cherish and nurture our young, not short-change them.



The new Blair

Sir: Immediate post-election promotion for the unelected architect of tuition fees. Instant plans to expand PFI in the NHS. More public subsidies to set up private "academies". Scarcely veiled threats to Iran over its nuclear programme. I think I preferred Mr Blair when he wasn't listening.



Arithmetic of civil war

Sir: Apparently Iraq is paying a high price in "their" fight for "our" version of the democracy that was forced upon them, because there were 440 Iraqi deaths directly attributed to the insurgency this month according to I'm curious: how many deaths are required before it's classified as a civil war? Or is that an exclusively political decision?



Race to catastrophe

Sir: Your 13 May article about expected population growth of France makes the peculiar assumption that the country with the larger population is "ahead" of the rest. In an overpopulated world, where human expansion threatens every aspect of the environment, we have to ask: ahead on the road to what?



No respect for nurses

Sir: The letters of the Victorian army surgeon David Greig say more about surgeons' attitude to nurses than anything serious about Florence Nightingale ("New light on the Lady with the Lamp", 12 May). A recent confidential survey of nurses leaving the NHS found that the main reason for resigning was the lack of respect from other health professionals for their work and opinions. Things have not changed much in the last 150 years.



Sudoku victims

Sir: Poor Tony Flanaghan (letter, 13 May). It takes him 40 minutes to do the four Sudoku puzzles and deprives him of 30 minutes' sleep. I cannot do the advanced puzzle and am getting no sleep at all as a result.