Blair to drop PR pledge in face of revolt

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TONY BLAIR is set to shelve Labour's manifesto commitment to holding a referendum on changing the voting system until after the next election, in the face of opposition to Proportional Representation from party members and trade unionists.

The Prime Minister does not intend to implement the recommendations of the Jenkins Commission until well into the next century. He will use the strong arguments against change, to be made by MPs and activists at the Labour conference in Blackpool this week, to argue that the pledge should be addressed at some later date.

Last night Mr Blair met Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which is leading the campaign to retain the first-past-the-post system. He told Mr Jackson he was "perfectly relaxed" about the pros-pect of the Labour conference voting against electoral reform.

Most of the unions are expected to back a motion tabled by the AEEU which urges the Government to retain the present voting procedure. It is expected that a major part of the 50 per cent block vote, wielded by unions at the conference, will swing behind the AEEU.

The unions are calling into question the wisdom of allowing other parties increased representation at a time when the Government enjoys such a large majority.

Mr Jackson is also worried about the potential influence of small extremist parties which could hold the balance of power under a new voting procedure. Defeat for electoral reform at the conference will undermine the conclusions of the Jenkins Commission, which is expected to recommend a watered-down version of PR.

Despite Mr Blair's widely known respect for Lord Jenkins, Downing Street is privately pleased that the mood in the party is swinging against change, as this will give the Prime Minister - who has himself said that he is "not convinced" of the case for reform - an excuse to drop the highly contentious issue, at least until after the next election. One minister said last night that there would be no referendum on the subject in the "foreseeable future", and another minister stressed that the manifesto commitment had been "kicked into the long grass".

"Tony Blair does not want to take this on," one well-placed source said. "He has nothing to win and a lot to lose." Labour MPs fear the issue could split the party in the same way as the single currency divided the Tories.

Reports, pages 2 & 4; Focus, pages 24 & 25