The rule of the minority

With a referendum on electoral reform announced, the spotlight turns on those MPs who did not secure

Britain will go to the polls on 5 May 2011 to decide whether we should change the way we vote.

The referendum was an important concession wrung from the Conservatives by their Liberal Democrat partners, and while it remains uncertain precisely how the two parties will align themselves for the campaign on the matter, the setting of the date is an important milestone in our electoral history.

The Labour leadership candidate David Miliband has strongly backed the reform, singling out the Alternative Vote (AV) system as his preferred option. On the Today programme this morning he said:

I think that it's important that we move to a system where every member of parliament has at least 50 per cent of the vote of their constituents.

Miliband himself received just over 52 per cent of the vote in his South Shields constituency, but a sizeable majority of his parliamentary colleagues were not so lucky. According to figures from the Electoral Reform Society, 434 MPs received less than 50 per cent of the vote -- that's 434 MPs who would be relying on redistributed preferences for a mandate under AV.

Some of the big names in this group include Ed Balls, Hazel Blears, Jon Cruddas, Ben Bradshaw, Danny Alexander, Oliver Letwin and David Davis.

The Conservatives have 179 MPs with less than 50 per cent of the vote but Labour has 181, or just over 70 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party. This last figure perhaps demonstrates why Labour is not whole-heartedly in favour of the referendum -- lots of previously safe seats would become very hard to predict under a new system.

Miliband's fellow leadership candidate Andy Burnham is not backing the reform, and is quoted in the Guardian as saying: "It is not my party's job to prop up the Liberal Democrats by helping them win a referendum that is important to them."

Had the most recent election been conducted using AV, the Labour Party would actually have has the smallest shift in its numbers, moving from 258 MPs to 262. But the Tories would have been even further from a majority, at 281, while the Liberal Democrats would have increased their share to 79.

A combined Lib-Lab government would thus have commanded a comfortable majority of 341 and kept the Tories out of Downing Street.

Full details of predictions under different voting systems are available from the Guardian's data blog.

But perhaps the most arresting aspect of the statistics produced by the Electoral Reform Society is the trend over time. In 1979, 32.4 per cent of MPs commanded less than 50 per cent of the vote, a number that has now more than doubled to 66.77 per cent.

With the 2010 election producing the highest ever number of MPs with less than 50 per cent of their local vote, the case has never been stronger for ditching the first-past-the-post system and restoring the link between constituency and MP.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.