Blair keeps his options open - in the national interest, of course

The Prime Minister has bought the time he needs to make a decision on electoral reform
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THIS IS now a party as deeply serious about using power as it was about winning it. Last year, Labour's leading figures were a little dazed by office, psychologically still in transit from opposition. This year, the best of them already seem like men and women born to have the preoccupations of ministers; too experienced to be innocent, not experienced enough to be cynical.

You can hear it not only in yesterday's sober, commendably governmental and minimally party-political speeches by Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Robin Cook, but in the standing ovations they received for them; in substance, with its endorsement of the politics of community and the collective, this is not, despite all the gibes, like an old-style Conservative conference. In style it is becoming well nigh identical. You can see it in the faint impatience of ministers to return to their red boxes and private offices.

You can observe it in the chatter bubbling around the restaurant tables across Blackpool: more likely to be about the daunting task of reforming a welfare system in which two thirds of benefits are paid under rules laid down in 1948, the chances for global economic management, or whether the inter-departmental will exists to make a difference to sink estates, than about the finer points of the elections to the National Executive.

And above all you can detect in the weariness with which they contemplate the tedious prospect of a referendum on electoral reform. Before 1 May, 1997, it was as lively a subject as any to talk about in a party which had nothing to do but talk. Now it seems like an absurd distraction from the urgent business of improving hospitals, schools, railways, inner cities, European institutions and international monetary co-operation. The endless dissection of electoral systems and their possible consequences is a subject made for political anoraks; it seems an embarrassing irrelevance to men and women in government mandated by a huge majority won under the present system, and with too much to do.

And yet they can't avoid the subject; ministers are anoraks too. There are at least two reasons for this. One is that decisions cannot be avoided, much as ministers from Tony Blair down frequently wish it could: Lord Jenkins' committee will recommend a new system this month; a referendum is promised in the sacred text of the manifesto. Change to the electoral system can be rejected, and with it the goal of the "centre-left century" to which Blair is committed. Or it can be embraced.

Delay, though not an indefinite one, is an option. Doing nothing isn't. The other is that it is the only topic on which an unprecedentedly monolithic government has been allowed to divide. Since this a subject on which the leader remains publicly inscrutable, and may continue to be for many months, the Cabinet barons have been licensed to stake out their positions. Only on electoral reform is there an open argument, in a government famous for having banned argument.

Yesterday, that argument was aired on the floor of the Winter Garden in the one real debate of the week. There were several lessons from it. The first is that whatever else the party has sacrificed in its journey needs to power, it has held on to much of its tribalism.

The balance of opinion in the hall was with the champions of the status quo. A woman delegate from Tyne Bridge declared, to enthusiastic applause, that under proportional representation Scotland and Wales would not, as they are now, be "Tory-free zones" without a single Conservative MP. In the country at large, as opposed to the party, that is a case for change and not one against it. The most vociferous parliamentary opponent of change, Stuart Hall, was also cavalier with his history, in his denunciation of anything which would increase Liberal Democrat representation in the House of Commons. The Liberals, he said, had pulled the plug on Labour in 1924 and in 1979. It's true that they did. But then they wouldn't have been there in the first place if Asquith had not let them in. The truth of the Liberals' support of the tottering Callaghan government was that David Steel continued to support it for much longer than he might have done, and gained little in return for his considerable pains. It was hardly the historic betrayal it was depicted as by Mr Bell. The fact is that the intellectual case for first past the post was not made in Blackpool yesterday.

But there were also other currents discernible below the surface. The debate was less bitter than supporters of reform had expected, suggesting that backing for the status quo in the party may not be quite as impregnable as a card vote would have suggested. Above all, Mr Blair has got through the week with his distinctly Fabian strategy intact; his options are still open and Paddy Ashdown will be granted the minimum requirement he needs to preserve his own leadership: the Prime Minister will not rule out a referendum in this Parliament - though he will not rule it in either. The Prime Minister has also bought the time he needs: deliberation will now grind through the policy-making machinery of the party on a timetable purposefully slow.

Gordon Brown, in an important and symbolic act of loyalty, has told the Prime Minister that he will back whatever final decision he takes provided he does not rush it; he needs more time to persuade Margaret Beckett and, much more importantly, John Prescott.

The central question, of course, remains, as it always has, whether the Prime Minister wills the means for an end he clearly wants: the reuniting of the Liberal and Labour traditions.

The variable which will most influence Mr Blair, of course, will be the question of whether the referendum can be won. The research produced by Philip Gould and Stan Greenberg for pro-reform campaigners shows that the extravagant support for reform quickly declines when the arguments for both sides are put. But it also shows that the hard core is more robust than some politicians think. Even when a battery of convincing arguments change - from the mess that has been Italian politics to the loss of confidence by voters that they will have the certainty of throwing over governments they hate - 55 per cent still favour reform. Nevertheless, that will hardly convince Mr Blair. He knows that in the party and the country he would have to embark on a Clause 4-type crusade to make victory possible - and this for something which for many years he never believed in.

He has no doubt of how formidable the obstacles are. But there are two contrary points, one to do with the big picture and one with low electoralism. The big picture is that Blair wants as much as Ashdown to heal the century- old schism between the two traditions. To do that he has to persuade himself that a truly national case can be made for ensuring the new system will enhance the power of voters whatever party they support. He means what he says about deciding the issue in the national interest. His party is less high minded, but it may grow to enjoy government too much and be willing to embrace a system which will help keep them in power.