The Labour split on AV deepens

Shadow cabinet minister John Healey leads the charge against electoral reform.

The electoral reform debate is stuttering into life. Today sees the official launch of both the Labour Yes campaign and Labour No campaigns. It's a critical moment, not least because Labour votes will determine the result of the referendum. The most recent YouGov poll on the subject showed that while Lib Dem voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reform (69:15) and the Tories are largely opposed (48:29), Labour voters are split 42:33 in favour of AV.

With this in mind, Ed Miliband will appeal to his party's activists not to turn the plebiscite into a referendum on Nick Clegg. He will say: "We can't reduce the second referendum in British political history to a verdict on one man . . . the change to the alternative vote deserves our support because it is fairer and because it encourages a better politics."

He will add that AV "should be the beginning of the journey, not the end", although this is thought to reflect his support for a fully elected second chamber rather than a late conversion to proportional representation.

Meanwhile, in an op-ed piece for the Independent, John Healey, one of three shadow cabinet members who oppose reform (the others are Caroline Flint and Mary Creagh) manages to cite just above every misleading argument against AV. He repeats the lazy claim that the system has been "rejected the world over" (bar Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea).

In fact, as Healey should know, AV is the method used for Labour and Lib Dem leadership elections, for many US mayoral and district elections, for most student union elections and for internal elections in numerous businesses and trade unions.

The piece is starkly headlined "Vote refom would benefit only BNP, Ukip and Lib Dems" (ie, do you really want to give the fascists a helping hand?), a claim that, in the case of the BNP, has been exposed repeatedly as shameless scaremongering.

As Peter Kellner has written, "AV is the best system for keeping the BNP at bay. The party would seldom, if ever, win any contest under AV." A system that forces parties to attract second-preference votes would lock out Nick Griffin's mob. It is for this reason that the BNP itself is calling for a No vote.

Whether Miliband's modest call for reform is enough to offset such demagoguery remains to be seen.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.