Labour Conference: Blair to play for time on PR plan

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR will continue to sit on the fence over electoral reform when the commission under Lord Jenkins of Hillhead reports later this month, as he tries to keep a lid on Labour's deep divisions.

The Prime Minister will dash Paddy Ashdown's hopes that he would immediately endorse the Jenkins plan for a more proportional representation (PR) voting system for House of Commons elections.

There is concern in Mr Blair's inner circle that Mr Ashdown may come under intense pressure to resign as Liberal Democrat leader because of the Prime Minister's refusal to back PR.

Today, Mr Blair will pay tribute to Mr Ashdown when he gives media interviews at the close of the Labour conference, and say that he wants close co- operation with the Liberal Democrats to continue.

Mr Blair will also refuse to rule out a referendum on PR during the current Parliament, even though Cabinet ministers believe it will be delayed until after the general election. "Announcing a delay could mean the end of Paddy," one Blair ally said yesterday.

Although close colleagues believe the Prime Minister will eventually opt for electoral reform, his scope for early action is limited by the opposition to PR inside the Cabinet and the Labour Party.

The Cabinet will not take a decision on the Jenkins report for several weeks, possibly months. "We will publish it, but not endorse it," a Blair aide said.

To buy more time, there will be a long consultation period involving the Labour grass roots. The party's national policy forum will not consider the Jenkins report until next June, even though it will meet in November. The party will not make its final decision on PR until its annual conference in a year's time.

Yesterday, strong hostility in the party to electoral reform was displayed during a heated emergency debate on PR. But the conference bowed to pressure from the leadership not to seek to tie Mr Blair's hands by declaring its support for the current first- past-the-post system.

The AEEU engineering union agreed that its motion opposing PR would be referred to Labour's national executive committee rather than put to a vote. But the climb-down infuriated other union bosses. John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union, said the conference should have made a decision on PR this year. "I suspect one or two arms have been twisted and one or two shabby little deals have been done."

Tom Sawyer, Labour's outgoing general secretary, insisted the party leadership was "not seeking to kick this issue into the long grass - we are recognising the strength of feeling on this issue".

Passionate speeches during the debate showed the strength of feeling on both sides.

To loud applause, the AEEU leader, Ken Jackson, said: "We want a Labour Party debate, not a Liberal Democrat deal." But he warned: "PR cannot become Labour's Emu - a force for division, an excuse for open warfare. I urge the party to keep its eye on the bigger picture, the serious business of government."

Mr Jackson said PR would mean permanent Liberal coalitions. " I want to see permanent Labour government," he said.

But Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield, insisted there was a need to "re-invigorate" the electoral process "It would be wrong if we as a party, in advance of the Jenkins proposals, close down the debate now."

Stuart Bell, MP for Middlesbrough and chairman of Labour's parliamentary "First Past The Post" group, which claims support of more than 100 MPs and some ministers,warned delegates the proportional representation system in New Zealand had resulted in one of the parties gaining eight cabinet seats with only 13 per cent of the vote.

Jim Murphy, MP for Eastwood, said: "This is not the most important issue facing this country. I would rather be discussing pressing issues such as health and education."