Saturday, 30 April 2011

AV or not AV, that is not the right question

UNLIKE some other countries, Britain doesn’t do national referendums very often. In fact, the last one was 36 years ago.
I remember it clearly. Partly because I felt passionately about the issue involved. Partly because it was the cause of one of the few fallings-out I had with my girlfriend of the time.
The question we were asked on June 5, 1975 was: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”
I say “we”, but actually I wasn’t asked. Not officially. My girlfriend was, though.
That was because she turned 18 just in time to vote, while I missed out by a few weeks.
She voted “no”. I would have voted “yes” – as I probably would now, though perhaps with greater reservations, if the same question were to be asked again.
In the event, I needn’t have worried. The Yes campaign triumphed by a whacking two-to-one majority.
It did so largely thanks to the support of the opposition Conservative Party under its new leader Margaret Thatcher. Which seems a tad ironic when you consider how much the Tories have beaten themselves up over Europe almost ever since.
The ruling Labour Party remained officially neutral, with most of its top brass on the Yes side despite a big conference majority the other way.
The most senior politician in the No camp was industry secretary Tony Benn, while the only national newspaper to urge a No vote was the Communist Morning Star.
Nearly 26million people cast a vote – 65 per cent of all those eligible (the same as in last year’s general election). If next Thursday’s referendum gets a turn-out half that size I’ll be surprised.
Yet the result could be just as significant for Britain’s future. In theory, at least.
If a majority votes Yes to a switch to the alternative vote, it will change the system used in all future elections. And could, therefore, change the outcome.
So how come the whole business seems such a turn-off? How come it hasn’t raised temperatures in the street the way the Common Market did in 1975?
Partly, it’s because we’re being asked the wrong question. And partly because the people running both the Yes and No campaigns seem to think we’re all half-witted.
There may be a good argument in favour of voting No. But I haven’t heard it. And it certainly isn’t in the glossy purple-and-sicky-green leaflet that dropped through my door the other day.
Its main argument seems to be that you and I shouldn’t have AV because we’re all far too thick to understand it.
Whereas it seems to me that it’s the campaign leaders themselves who are thick.
They say: “The winner should be the one that comes first.” Yet they don’t seem to have noticed how often that isn’t the case with the present system.
At present, Glenda Jackson’s Labour majority of 42 in Hampstead is worth as much as the 13,050 majority Matthew Hancock gained for the Conservatives in West Suffolk.
While the Tories govern the country after gaining little more than a third of the votes cast at the election – as, indeed, did Labour before them.
Under the present system, the government is effectively chosen by a few thousand floating voters in a handful of marginal consistuencies.
And this is supposed to be fair?
Amusingly enough, David Cameron himself was elected to the Tory leadership under a version of AV similar to the one France uses to choose its president.
If the ballot had been a straightforward first-past-the-post one, David Davis would now be prime minister. Or, perhaps, leader of the opposition.
So it’s a bit rich that Cameron should want to deny the rest of us the benefit of the system that got him where he is today.
The leaflet put out by the Yes campaign is far cheaper and shabbier (guess where the money is – just as the Tories had all the big shiny posters last year). Which may be a point in its favour.
Unfortunately, the arguments in it are if anything even stupider than those for the Noes.
A Yes vote won’t make all MPs work hard. It won’t end MPs’ jobs for life. And it won’t give us all a stronger voice, whatever Ralph in East Sussex may say about all the men in his family fighting in both world wars.
It will make the system fairer. Slightly.
It will give some people a sense that their votes aren’t wasted – as mine is always likely to be in a constituency that would elect a fish if it wore a blue rosette.
But it will also represent a sadly wasted opportunity.
Our allegedly democratic system desperately needs reform. Real reform, not petty tinkering.
Proper proportional representation, not a continuation of the Westminster village of one-constituency, one-MP.
I shall vote “Yes”, on the principle that a little shuffle in vaguely the right direction may be better than no move at all.
But I’ll do it without the passion I’d have voted with – if I’d been a few weeks older – in 1975.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

NHS ‘reform’: An open letter to my MP

DOES democracy work? Here, maybe, is a chance to find out.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg appear to have wobbled a little on the subject of vandalism – sorry, reform – of the NHS.
But does a possible delay and a “listening exercise” actually add up to anything of value? Or is it merely a ruse to deflect protest before pressing ahead anyway?
Remember, the planned changes aren’t cuts. They aren’t about saving money – in fact, they’ll almost certainly cost money.
They are about handing control of the pursestrings to GPs. As if they wanted it, and as if they didn’t have enough to do already.
They are about “fixing” something that ain’t broke. About replacing duty of care with duty to make a profit.
They are about giving away billions of pounds of public money – your money and mine – into private hands.
The LibDems, of course – at least, those in the parliamentary party – could just pull the plug. But then that applies to everything they’re letting the Tories get away with.
The best you or I can do (until the next election) is to see how closely the politicians are really listening. And for that, the time-honoured technique is to write to your MP.
These days, with email, that’s easier than it used to be. Below is the text of the email I sent this week to Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey.
If, like me, you’re deeply concerned about the future well-being of the NHS, I’d urge you to send a similar message to your own MP.
The quickest and easiest way to do that is to visit the website and click on the green “Email your MP” button near the bottom of the homepage.
The fact that all Suffolk’s MPs are now Tories may make them less open to your fears than others might be. On the other hand, if they do listen, their views may be taken more seriously for being in the party of government.

“Dear Therese Coffey

Having studied Andrew Lansley’s proposals for changes to the NHS, I am deeply troubled by the damage his plans would inflict upon a service that is a cornerstone of British life and which we have all learned to rely on over decades.
The introduction of too much competition and privatisation threatens both the caring ethos of the NHS and the currently extremely good provision of care our doctors and hospitals provide.
In our part of Suffolk we have very good GPs whose commitment to the community could only be worsened by having to manage a privatised service. We also enjoy outstanding levels of care at Ipswich Hospital, which it would be unforgivable to jeopardise.
I speak with some knowledge of this as the son of an 89-year-old mother whose life has undoubtedly been extended and certainly hugely improved by this excellent service.
Please urge Andrew Lansley, David Cameron and the Cabinet to listen seriously to the many concerns people have about their plans; and not just to pay lip-service to our genuine worries but actually to abandon a course which would greatly impair both the reputation and performance of Britain’s outstanding health service.

Yours sincerely,

Aidan Semmens”


NOT surprisingly for an island nation with a lot of shoreline and a mountainous interior, the Japanese eat a lot of fish. Much of it raw.
Which is why they have good cause to be concerned at reports of radioactive iodine at 7.5 million times the legal limit being found in seawater off the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.
Authorising the release of 11,500 tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific, the Japanese government said any radiation would quickly be diluted and dispersed.
Well, maybe. But the truth is – as with so much about the whole Fukushima incident – that they don’t really know.
They can’t know how far the contamination will spread, or precisely what effects it will have on sealife large or small, animal, plant or indeterminate.
There is simply no precedent for this kind of release of toxic material into a heavily fished sea.
It’s an experiment no one would willingly contemplate carrying out.
Like it or not, they’re carrying it out now.


SHAMELESS self-promotion corner.
My first full-length book of modernist poetry is now available from Shearsman Publishing, a mere 33 years after my first small-press pamphlet appeared.
Titled “A Stone Dog”, it can be found on Amazon, at, or by order from any good bookshop.
My poetry bears no obvious resemblance to this column, but regular readers might (I hope) see something in the description by poet Kelvin Corcoran: “Semmens doesn’t blink in the face of the big scam…”

Friday, 1 April 2011

A pleasant stroll with 250,000 friends

MY cousin Martin is a quiet, reserved sort of chap, as befits the service he worked in for many years.
At 67, he’s retired now but clearly still cares about the library, and indeed other public services.
On Saturday night he reported: “Cathy and I had a pleasant stroll through London in the company of quarter-of-a-million or so friends this afternoon.”
Barring some uncertainty about the total number gathered – a quarter-million was at the lowest extreme of the range of estimates – that gentle image seems to sum up nicely the experience of all those I know who took part in the anti-cuts demo.
Another friend, coincidentally also called Martin, took his seven-year-old daughter, at her request, and didn’t regret it.
At one point in the afternoon, a little after reporting on Ed Miliband’s speech to the throng, he tweeted: “Of course no expression of anti-establishment tendencies is complete without a trip to Claire’s Accessories…”
Which also puts the day’s events into a different perspective from anything you may have seen on the TV news.
Finally he concluded: “It was a great experience. Really lovely atmosphere. Too bad the real story of the day has been lost behind a cake stand at Fortnum & Mason.”
Too bad indeed.
And it’s an interesting question who you should blame for the news crews turning away from hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters to focus on the less peaceful few.
Those inevitable few?
Or the news teams?
After all, isn’t a march by half-a-million disgruntled citizens (to move to the top of the estimates scale) of greater real significance than a sit-in at a posh shop by a few dozen?
In fact, video taken inside Fortnum & Mason shows even that sideshow to the main event was non-violent and non-destructive – as was admitted by police officers present.
Nevertheless, all 145 peaceful demonstrators were rounded up and arrested. That’s quite a high proportion of the day’s total of 201 arrests.
Leaving not many “mindless thugs” for Theresa May to get all unnecessary about.
When the home secretary talks about “thuggish behaviour of the worst kind” she is, frankly, raving. Except if it’s madness, there is surely method in it. A rather cynical and calculating method.
Suffolk teachers’ union leader Graham White was more measured, and more accurate.
He said: “The few who were intent on causing damage to property … targeted banks and big business – those who their research had shown to be substantial tax avoiders.
“It was damage to property and not to peoples’ livelihoods or personal circumstances. It will not cause intense personal suffering, unlike the Con-Dem cuts.”
It’s no surprise that Tories such as Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey should find such straight talk “appalling”.
It’s more disappointing that former county council leader Bryony Rudkin, speaking for the Labour Party, should describe Mr White’s comments as “unhelpful”.
Much as it’s disappointing that Labour should go along with the Tory cuts as far as saying they themselves would merely cut more slowly and more sensitively.
Instead of being bold enough to stand up and tell the truth.
That in percentage terms Britain’s debt is not unusually high – either by comparison with other countries, or with our own history.
Messrs Cameron and Osborne say savage cuts are needed because Britain is bust.
But it’s no more bust than it was at the height of the industrial revolution.
No more bust than when the British Empire coloured a quarter of the world map pink.
Less bust than when we went to war with Hitler’s Germany and won.
Much less bust than when the NHS, social services, the welfare state – all those vital services the Tories are now intent on destroying – were set up in the wake of that victory.
On all those occasions, the nation got itself out of trouble by going to work. Not by throwing people out of work.
The same policy would work now, if only the toffs at the top weren’t intent on out-Thatchering Thatcher.
On taking an axe to the caring state – and, incidentally, to the economy.
That’s why somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 law-abiding people took to the streets of London last weekend.
That’s why their legitimate protest must be heard, not drowned out by the home secretary’s hysterical reaction to the tiny minority of the slightly less law-abiding.


POOR Nick Clegg got caught in an old trap this week – the informal, “off-the-record” chat with reporters that goes on the record when he makes the mistake of saying something interesting.
What he said, in a nutshell, was that the Fukushima incident will make the future cost of building nuclear power-stations so great they won’t get built. Essentially, that the nuclear industry is a dead duck.
Terribly bad form, that. Breaking government ranks by telling the truth.