Thursday, 28 April 2011

Defend one person, one vote and say no to AV

THE PRINCIPLE of one person, one vote has been the hallmark of our democracy since the days of the suffragettes and now is not the time to abandon it. It is fair because every man and woman has an equal vote. It is simple and clear because you put a cross in the box and the candidate with the most votes wins. It generally gives us strong and decisive government. Our current system is the most widely used in the world and it puts voters in charge – people know how to throw out tired governments.

The Alternative Vote system is used by just three countries – Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Polls show that most Australians don't like it and want to return to the British system. When they introduced AV in Australia, turnout went down and two elections later compulsory voting had to be introduced.

So why on earth are we even considering switching to such an unpopular and discredited system? The answer is that it was the bottom line demand by Nick Clegg as the price for forming a coalition. This referendum has not been demanded by the public, it has been forced on the public by Lib Dem politicians who think it will advance their own narrow political interests. The cost of switching to AV has also been estimated at £250 million. At a time like this, we can all think of better things to spend that money on.

If we switch to AV, such political stitch-ups will become far more common. It will create a culture where political parties promise the earth, knowing that they can abandon their manifestos in the horse trading that will follow. That is bad for democracy.

Under AV, some people get more of their votes counted than others. You only get a second or third vote if you voted for the most unpopular candidates. So, someone who votes for the BNP will be given a second bite of the cherry whereas someone who votes for a mainstream party will be restricted to one of their votes being counted. That's not fair.

It also means that one person's first choice for the candidate they are really passionate about is valued no higher than another person's fifth choice, for a candidate they care little for. During the count, you end up with all sorts of different numbers muddled together on the same pile which is clearly ridiculous.
We should not blame the voting system for the problems of Parliament. There is nothing wrong with the principle of one person, one vote. But what I want to see is more conviction in politics, where candidates plant a flag in the ground and take a stand for what they believe in. We can change Parliament to make that possible, but AV would send things in reverse and create politicians who pretend to be all things to all men. That would undermine democracy. So, to defend one person, one vote, say "no" on May 5.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Green energy suppliers must learn to earn support

I recently attended a stormy meeting at Constantine over plans to build a field scale solar power farm. I generally support green energy and have championed the potential for wave power in Cornwall but what has happened over solar farms gives green energy developers a bad name and undermines people’s faith in local democracy.

The last government set up a policy to encourage solar panels on roofs and so called "micro-generation”. Those installing solar panels are paid a "feed in tariff", a guaranteed payment per unit of electricity put in to the national grid, which is above the prevailing market rate. The cost is ultimately absorbed by electricity consumers through slightly higher electricity bills.

The new government fully supports micro-generation. Recently Camborne Church told me that they were investigating the possibility of putting solar panels on their roof which would generate an income to support some of their good work in the community. That is positive: individual communities taking small steps to expand green energy while simultaneously strengthening our society.

However, things went wrong. The last government made a mistake in the way it drafted the legislation and so failed to adequately cap the size of eligible projects. There was a stampede from large commercial developers who wanted to set up field scale solar farms and rake in huge profits at the expense of the long suffering electricity bill payer.

So the current government moved quickly to review the rates and slashed the so called Feed-in-Tariff by about 70 percent for such field scale farms from this August. This aimed to ensure that this unsustainable gold rush was cooled down and that the money available was used wisely to develop community schemes rather than creamed of by commercial operators. In most parts of the country, it worked. However, some projects in Cornwall are now racing faster than ever to try to get their foot in the door before August which gives them the inflated profits of the old system locked in for 25 years. In some cases, planners have been bounced into agreeing plans even where there is no local support.

Every time planners ride rough shod over local opinion they damage local democracy. The idea of field scale solar farms is new and planners should be proceeding with caution. It is the job of commercial developers to work hard and earn public support for their schemes. In some parts of the country, progress has been made with community ownership schemes where local communities who are asked to accept, say, a wind farm or an energy-from-waste plant on their doorstep, are given free shares in the company or maybe guaranteed free electricity for the life of the project. That is one way of taking the conflict out of such schemes but it has yet to happen in Cornwall.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Banking

This week saw the publication of the report on the future of banking by Sir John Vickers. I have always argued that the banking industry needs to be sorted out and that new regulation might be required to achieve that.

The central recommendation by John Vickers is that banks should clearly separate their retail banking operations, that is dealing with people like us in High Street branches, from so called “casino banking”, where the banks speculate on world markets. It was the mixing of these two that got the industry in a mess last time round. The banks were like gambling addicts who had lost the plot and they were raiding our wallets to keep their habit going. Worst of all, the banks lost the ability to distinguish between an asset and a liability. Some banks treated toxic debt as an asset against which they borrowed yet more money. It couldn’t go on, and so we all paid the price.

Sir John Vickers has also identified another problem with the banks: the lack of competition. I frequently have people come to see me who have been treated appallingly by their banks and ripped off with loads of invented, cooked up charges which the banks just add on people’s account without a hint of shame. I have also seen small businesses bullied by banks because they currently hold most of the cards in their relationship with their customers.

We need to rebalance the law in favour of enterprise and against the vested interests of the banks. That is why I have introduced a Private Members Bill which will protect small businesses against aggressive sharp practice by lenders.

It annoys me that some people in the banking industry think it is acceptable to carry on regardless and still claim whopping bonuses just because they used to. I don’t agree that you need to pay that sort of money to get good people. There are far more intelligent and able people at the top of medicine, education or the military in this country. Such people are paid well but don’t expect a seven figure bonus at Christmas. The truth is that the banks have enjoyed a totally unsustainable high pay culture which bears no resemblance to the true value of the work they do and, in their own jargon, a “correction in the market” is required.

Of course, any suggestion that we should introduce some sort of accountability on these people immediately causes them to threaten us. They tell us that they might stop lending to small businesses, that they will take us to court to protect their contracts and bonuses or that they will leave the country. But they have cried wolf enough. Let them go if they want to. Otherwise, they should get over it and get on with their work.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Past and future brilliance

Last Friday I went along to a second evening of nostalgia at Camborne School led by the Holman-Climax Choir with a slide show of old photographs. The evening was a celebration of Camborne’s extraordinary industrial past and draws a big audience. Last year, the event was oversubscribed and, this year, there is such demand that David Oates has had to organise a second showing set for this Friday.

The fabulous architecture in Camborne stands out in the old photographs but, sadly, many of the buildings have since been lost. The efforts of Jean Charman and others to preserve the last remaining Holman building at Trevu Road has come a step closer which is welcome news. I have always believed that the best way to preserve beautiful architecture is to find a modern use for it. Camborne, Redruth and Hayle have amazing architecture from their industrial past which is frequently underappreciated. We should use it or lose it.

Last Friday’s event left me with two strong impressions. First, the pride and self confidence which surrounded Holmans was striking. You can see it in the old photographs and archive footage. This was a world beating team with high standards.

The second thing that struck me was the resilience of the community that had grown up around Holmans. There last Friday was Agnes James who has played the piano for the choir for the last forty years. That’s tenacity and commitment for you, and the packed audience proved to me that the will to succeed in this part of Cornwall is as strong as ever. We can’t bring Holmans back, but we can rekindle the pride, confidence and can-do attitude that it was built on in the first place.

Rekindling pride and confidence starts with the next generation and there have been some really important steps forward in our local schools. Last week, both Pool and Camborne Schools were granted Academy status along with numerous local primary schools. These will now become fully independent and free to drive up standards in the way they see fit.

I also visited Redruth School where the new Head Teacher, Craig Martin, has made a brilliant start. As well as a new emphasis on reading and homework, the students at the school are currently selecting the design of a new school uniform with traditional blazer and tie. Just as was the case at Camborne School last year, this is a move not just supported by the pupils, but led by them. It might seem a small thing but I think it is an incredibly positive sign because it shows a commitment to raising standards and an aspiration to be the best which is the very culture that created places like Holmans in the first place. It bodes well for the future.