A referendum and a royal wedding - Irfan Hussain - Monday 18th April 2011

The English countryside in the spring can be outrageously lovely: the new green shoots and leaves have a freshness about them that soothes eyes accustomed to dreary, dusty Karachi. Pink and white blossoms run riot, and small lambs gambol in the lush fields.
It was good getting back to Devizes after spending most of the winter in Sri Lanka and Karachi, even though I had a great time back home. When somebody asks me where I live, I`m not sure what to reply, given my rootless, nomadic lifestyle. But at heart, I would like to stay in one place. The lady wife, however, insists that we should travel as long as we can carry our own suitcases.
England is currently in the grip of the feverish preparations for the upcoming royal wedding. Neighbours are planning a street party to celebrate the occasion, and TV networks and newspapers are promising massive coverage of the event. I hate weddings at the best of times, and am trying to figure out an excuse to duck out of the street party next door.
But I fear that I will suffer some degree of exposure to the hoopla: nobody living in this country will be able to escape without seeming to be utterly anti-social and anti-monarchist. On the plus side, this happy occasion will serve as a distraction from the grim realities of the recession and the savage cuts in public expenditure that are blighting so many lives.
Inflation, although marginally lower than was feared, is still eating away at family budgets. A recent newspaper story reminded readers of how tough life has got for millions: a large number of teachers in state schools have reported in a survey that they are seeing growing numbers of students from lower income families arriving at school without having had breakfast; some are wearing shoes too small for them; and others are unable to afford bus fares. High street retail shops are struggling as people`s incomes are mostly being spent on food and fuel. Petrol is now 1.4 pounds a litre, or nearly 200 rupees. And people are increasingly shopping online. Bankers and businessmen are gloomy about a quick recovery, given the coalition government`s policy of imposing deep cuts on expenditure.
One of the casualties of lower local council spending is that many public libraries face closure. It is true that most of them are refuges or pensioners or the unemployed who use the free Internet service they provide. The ones I have been to offer splendid collections of books, journals and DVDs. But the truth is that by and large, they are very underutilised, with few young people using their services. So in a sense, they are being subsidised by taxpayers who hardly ever use them. Nevertheless, it would be sad to lose such a precious resource.
The issue that is on the mind of the political class currently is the coming referendum on the alternative voting (AV) system. This was high on the Liberal Democrat agenda, and putting it to the vote was their pre-condition to join the Conservative-led coalition. Now a fortnight away, the referendum is not causing much excitement among voters, and the only thing that might give it some credibility is the fact that it is being held on the same day as the local council elections.
Most people simply don`t understand it, even though it is far less complicated than the proportional representation system originally favoured by the Lib Dems, and earlier proposed by Labour. Basically, AV would continue to have one representative elected from his or her constituency, as does the present first-past-the-post method used in most countries with Westminster-style parliamentary systems.
Voters rank candidates in their order of preference, and if nobody gets 50 per cent of the ballots cast, the votes of the last candidate are distributed equally among the others. This goes on until one candidate has a majority. This ensures that nobody can win without having at least half the votes, thereby ending the present anomaly of representatives going to parliament with a fraction of the votes in their constituency.
The party that will benefit most from this system are the Liberal Democrats who have been traditionally marginalised by the first-past-the-post method. Indeed, if the proposal is rejected next month, Nick Clegg will lose much credibility and clout within the coalition and the country.
Many voters might choose to use this referendum as their means of punishing Clegg for what they view as his betrayal of his party`s promises and ideals. This outrage was on display a few months ago when the coalition government announced its plans to allow universities to triple their tuition fees. This was contrary to specific pre-election pledges made by Nick Clegg, and he has been much reviled for breaking this, and several other, promises he made last year to his party and his supporters.
So now there is widespread expectation that he will suffer in the referendum and in the local council elections. The Conservative right wing is looking on in glee at the predicament of their coalition partner, as it sticks to its guns on the referendum. While the Tories agreed to put the matter to the vote, they are not committed to supporting it.
The truth is that neither of the two major parties really want to change the system that has suited them so well in the past. Should AV be approved, they will have to cede a number of seats to the Lib Dems, so openly or covertly, they are supporting the No campaign. Labour is in a slight quandary as it has earlier supported proportional representation, although once in power, this support was quite lukewarm.
Recently, Nick Clegg admitted in an interview that music often moved him to tears. He may soon find something else to cry about.

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/04/18/a-referendum-and-a-royal-wedding.html

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