Action please, not words, on power-sharing

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In all the scenes of relief and jubilation last week, not to mention the continuing excitement at the sheer novelty of it all, the air of calm about the incoming Prime Minister was striking. Despite being released from the constraints of vote-catching, Tony Blair continued to deliver his single transferable speech for the campaign, three times on election night and again on the steps of Downing Street on Friday. John Prescott skipped into Number 10 with a boyish "I've always wanted to do this", but Mr Blair remained resolute in his self-control. Many of those watching on television were puzzled. Surely he could say what he likes now, he doesn't have to be so careful. Does he not realise that he has won?

The truth is that he has won one election, but is already campaigning for the next. The one thing that is known about the character of the man who will rule us for the next four or five years is that he is serious about the acquisition and use of power. And Mr Blair will clearly have learnt one lesson from John Major, which is that he spent too much time governing and not enough campaigning.

This may seem a slightly depressing observation, and there will certainly be a sense of anti-climax among those who hoped the control freaks would allow the "real" Mr Blair out now. The Independent is not among those, on both sides of politics, who accepted at face value his promise that he would be more radical in government than in opposition. Nor do we think the real Mr Blair is different from the elusive, serious-minded person who presented himself for election. But we are anxious that his government should translate some of the rhetoric of a "new politics" into reality.

We urged him to invite Liberal Democrats to serve in his administration: he has not. But that is part of the post-landslide logic of politics. Had Paddy Ashdown agreed to join the Blair government, he would have had to make Blair offer him something first - in other words, to change a policy, perhaps on voting reform, which had just been endorsed by Labour voters at the polls. New Labour would have been outraged. But if Ashdown had joined without such a change, he would have split his own party merely for the pleasure of helping to implement another party's programme.

All in all, then, the better part of valour. Yet valour is still needed. So far the Prime Minister has offered the rhetoric of pluralism and the fact of centralism. He should consider further the lessons of his great landslide.

The last landslide in this country was, after all, the one which brought him into the Commons and which, as much as any political event, shaped his outlook. He always expressed his distaste for the defeatism which proclaimed that Margaret Thatcher did not have a true democratic mandate in 1983 because she won her 144-seat majority on an unfair electoral system with only 44 per cent of the vote.

He recognised that it was Labour's failure which allowed her to win, and that some of what she did was necessary and right. But there was a dangerous and undemocratic absence of checks and balances. That was how he spoke at the time. The question now is how much Mr Blair will volunteer to subject his own rule to democratic restraint.

Let us spell out the arithmetic. Labour won 44.4 per cent of the vote. If parliamentary seats were allocated proportionally, Mr Blair would command 285 MPs, rather than the 419 he now has. (The other, more satisfying, paradox is that the Tories would have had 201 seats instead of 165; perhaps they will now come round to electoral reform in the way that they are turning to devolution in Scotland and Wales, where they failed to win a single seat.)

The Liberal Democrats achieved a breakthrough to win 46 seats, but still have fewer than half the 110 they would have in a proportional system.

All that is, for Mr Blair, beside the point. There is no perfect system, he says, so he is not persuaded of the case for change. Leave aside the obvious riposte, that the present system is the least perfect of all, and let us concentrate on Mr Blair's desire to stay in power for a long time.

There has been some loose talk about how the size of Labour's landslide guarantees Mr Blair a second parliamentary term. It does no such thing. Clement Attlee's postwar victory, a 146-seat majority, lasted just six years (although there's another argument for electoral reform: Labour actually won more votes in 1951 than the Conservatives). And there is some evidence that the electorates of advanced Western democracies are becoming more volatile. There was the collapse of the Socialist Party in France, the mid-term Republican landslide in America in 1994, the Canadian wipe-out and so on.

Electoral reform is an issue which is not of central importance to the British voter. And the referendum which has been promised is not an early priority for the new government. There is much to be done for jobs and education. But if Mr Blair is serious in his large talk of a new political settlement for this country, it is an essential catalyst. It could give a progressive government of the centre a lock on power that was quite different in nature from the elective dictatorship of the past 18 years.

So, he has not brought Liberal Democrats into government. He may not have decided yet whether annexation or partnership is his goal. But there are other ways of skinning this cat - real devolution, open government, the use of outside advisers, freer rules for civil servants ... and then voting reform too. In his euphoria, Mr Blair, with his middle-distance stare with which we will all become more familiar, is already looking towards 2001 and 2002. Let us hope that gazing into the future will persuade him to share some of the unprecedented power which the British people have lent him.

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