Blair to delay electoral reform

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR is to delay some of Labour's plans for constitutional reform to prevent his Government getting `bogged down" with changing the way Britain is governed.

After a Cabinet summit at Chequers yesterday to approve the programme for the Parliamentary session starting in November, government sources said Mr Blair was determined to avoid "constitutional overload."

The Cabinet agreed that a bill to strip hereditary peers of their speaking and voting rights would be included in the Queen's Speech. But the Prime Minister is urging caution about further constitutional change, arguing that many voters want the Government to concentrate on "bread-and-butter" issues such as the economy, health, education and crime.

Labour's manifesto promise to bring in a freedom of information law will be delayed for a second year, and plans to turn the House of Lords into a partly-elected body have been shelved until after the next General Election.

Close colleagues said Mr Blair remained "cool" about the introduction of proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons.

"Nobody has been able to persuade him of the merits of wholesale change to the electoral system," said one source. "Although he is keen to continue promoting close links with the Liberal Democrats, this exercise has certainly not converted him to PR."

But Cabinet ministers believe Mr Blair will decide to support a limited electoral reform package expected to be proposed next month by a commission chaired by Lord Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat peer and former Labour minister. It is likely to endorse the election of 500 MPs by the alternative vote system, under which voters mark the candidates in their order of preference, topped up by 100 MPs elected to reflect each party's share of the total vote in each region.

Although a referendum would be held on the Jenkins blueprint before the next General Election, ministers believe Mr Blair would not introduce the new system until the election after next.

One reason for Mr Blair's is caution is that support for PR amongst Labour MPs has cooled. Opponents claim a majority of MPs support the present first-past-the-post system.

Trade unions will mobilise against PR at next week's TUC conference and Mr Blair will come under pressure at Labour's annual conference to rule it out. Left-wing constituency parties who oppose reform, and the right- wing AEEU engineering union have joined forces by tabling motions declaring support for the present system.

The AEEU has written to all local parties and is to appoint an "anti- PR campaign co-ordinator" in each constituency.

"PR would lead to a weak coalition government in which politicians, not the people, decide who governs," Ken Jackson, the union's general secretary, said yesterday.