The first sign has emerged of a future compromise between the Liberal Democrats and Labour over reforming the system of voting in elections to the House of Commons.
Senior Liberal Democrats are now discussing moves in the direction of the so-called "Alternative Vote" - a system that allows voters to mark candidates in order of preference and which Tony Blair, the Labour leader, could ultimately support.
According to a senior source, Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional affairs, has intimated his party's willingness to consider the system in private talks on constitutional change with Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow cabinet's principal advocate of proportional representation.
Mr Maclennan is understood to have suggested that an alternative vote (AV) system would have to be "topped up" to an extent with another system, such as picking additional MPs from party lists, to inject more proportionality.
Any move away from the Liberal Democrats' preference for a fully proportional single transferable vote (STV) would amount to a big concession. But some party strategists believe that it could be sold to the Liberal Democrat grass roots.
The STV scheme long favoured by the Liberal Democrats would involve voting in multi-member constituencies covering between three and five current parliamentary seats. AV has been criticised for not really being "proportional" at all since it cannot guarantee that seats won reflect the total votes cast for each of the parties.
But one senior Liberal Democrat figure said: "There is a view that we could live with it, provided it's topped up with something else."
The latest crab-like manoeuvres by the two parties on the issue comes a few weeks after the Labour leadership began signalling that minds had opened on the question of preferential voting.
The signs were the first indication of change since the late John Smith rejected a similar recommendation from the Labour-sponsored Plant commission, opting to hold a referendum instead.
A referendum on electoral reform would not be held by a Blair government until at least the middle of a first parliament.
Mr Cook and Mr Maclennan are also engaged in the pressing issue of how the parties should handle legislation in the first year for a Scottish Parliament. Senior party figures want to put it through a committee rather than the floor of the House to avoid a bitter struggle with opposition Tories.Reuse content