ANOTHER VIEW: Blair's babes want reform

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The Independent Online
August can be an excitable month for politicians and journalists. Yesterday saw claims that Labour is retreating on its commitment to a referendum on voting reform. This follows earlier changes on plans for regional government and reform of the House of Lords. Are Labour's modernisers being routed?

Not yet. Although he is personally sceptical about proportional representation (PR), Tony Blair affirmed his commitment to a referendum during his leadership election. To wrest the decision back now from the hands of the voters, just when Labour is riding high in the polls, is as unlikely a resurgence of old Labourism as the return of Mr Blair himself to flared trousers.

This is New Labour now, we are constantly reminded. It certainly is. Almost 100,000 people - a third of the total membership - have signed up since 1992. According to the most recent survey by Patrick Seyd and Philip Whiteley of Sheffield University, 65 per cent of new members favour PR, while only 21 per cent are against. Blair's babes want a referendum.

The pragmatism on regional assemblies and reform of the Upper House has been widely accepted because it still leaves the door open to further reform in response to demand. Proponents of an elected second chamber and directly elected regional assemblies can accept half a loaf now and argue for the rest in a second term.

To renege on the referendum commitment, however, would be a very different matter. The referendum is already the half-loaf. It is the principled compromise reached between ardent proponents of PR and equally strong advocates of the status quo. It is acceptable because it defers any change to the voting system to a second term, after a referendum has already been held. Parties can then go to the polls committed to upholding or defying the verdict of that referendum. And it is principled because it allows the people themselves to decide, rather than the current conjuncture of bloc votes in Labour's own half-reformed voting system.

The referendum compromise has allowed both sides of the argument to reach a modus vivendi and to concentrate on the issues that unite them against the Government. To reopen this debate now, 18 months at most from the general election, would be a blunder. It would dispel Baroness Thatcher's worst nightmare, revealed in an interview in June with the Daily Telegraph, when she rejected arguments that a period in opposition might benefit the Tories. "That's crazy," she said. "If you went into opposition you may not get back for many years - they might change the voting system!"

Mr Blair has promised not just a change of government but a new politics. His commitment to ask people to decide the structure of our voting democracy is the most powerful manifestation of that promise. Happily, there is no real indication that he plans to relinquish it.

The writer is Labour MP for the Western Isles

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