How to revive top-quality democracy

Tony Blair is worried that people are going off politics in a big way. Hence the new ideas he revealed to Donald Macintyre
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For an Opposition leader enjoying a 25-point poll lead, Tony Blair is remarkably focused on the proposition that there is "still a lot to do" before an election that could yet be 16 months away. In Club Class at 35,000 feet, en route to a snow-bound Vienna to lend to the Austrian Chancellor's election campaign a little lustre, Mr Blair is visibly alert to the tasks ahead for his party.

While he mocks the Tory high command for the apparent "sense of decay, a fin de siecle air" that he claims hangs over the Government, he is alsokeenly aware that in this strange period of electoral phoney war Labour could have problems maintaining its own momentum. And here his own legendary lack of complacency comes to the rescue: new Labour has to "deepen its message". While he says, correctly, that some among the "chattering classes" may be bored with the "new Labour, new Britain" theme, the public at large is "still coming to terms with it, still getting used to it".

Though he doesn't say so, you can detect a hint of frustration that he has not been given the credit by UK commentators that he already gets abroad for shaping what he sees as a new, coherent, three-sided ideology for Labour. When you point out that the similarly clear ideological map Margaret Thatcher drew for herself in opposition between 1975 and 1979 was coloured in by some eye- catching policies such as the sale of council houses, he says, almost impatiently, that yes, there will be more headline-making policies, but that should not detract from the clarity of his overall mission. He recaps on the three-sided approach.

First, in the economic sphere, it is about "equipping people and business for massive global and technological change", which he distinguishes from both the "rampant laissez-faire" doctrines of the new right and the "centralised economic planning" of the old left.

Second, there is a "one nation" approach to social cohesion, based on reform of the welfare state, "rebuilding strong public services" and confronting the problem of "an underclass set apart from the rest of society". He again makes the distinction: this is neither new right "indifference to social breakdown" nor the old left's limitless expansion of public spending and rights without responsibilities.

And the third element is a "new politics" to bring government "closer to the people", which contrasts with the right's hostility to constitutional change and the old left's addiction to all-powerful central government.

It is about the third of these - how to change the very nature of British party politics - that Mr Blair is keenest to talk today. But just how solid are his credentials here? After all, the Commons is still a bear- garden, and Labour-Lib Dem co-operation is in one of its grumpily sluggish phases - not least because the Labour leader himself has resolutely refused to shift from his position that he is "not persuaded of the case" for Commons electoral reform. Indeed, it is like stripping paint with your bare fingernails to get the Labour leader to expand on how he would handle the commitment inherited from John Smith to hold a referendum on proportional representation.

Mr Blair clearly believes that since there is such a large constitutional agenda on which Labour's goals are shared with the Liberal Democrats, the "understandable" importance Paddy Ashdown's party attaches to PR should not be allowed to become a barrier. But he does give the faintest hint of how a PR referendum might work. And that hint comes after a conversation on the matter of a referendum on monetary union. Were an EMU referendum to take place under a Labour government, Mr Blair maintains, he does not envisage allowing any breach of collective cabinet responsibility - no repeat of 1975, when Harold Wilson permitted cabinet ministers to campaign according to their own views on European membership.

What, then, about a PR referendum? "It could be argued that PR is a slightly different case because there has been an ongoing debate in the party and many positions have been taken."

And as Prime Minister he himself would take a view when the time came. Ever cautious, he stressed the party was nowhere near a decision on this; but it just might mean that Mr Blair would allow Robin Cook and other cabinet colleagues who supported PR to campaign for it, even if he personally was against it.

Nevertheless, this still leaves the question of what's new on the political reform flank. Well, two issues certainly are, key proposals in areas neglected by many middle-class constitutional reform junkies: local government and the workings of Parliament itself. At the centre of his thinking on the Commons is a genuinely radical transformation of Prime Minister's Question Time from its twice weekly, 15-minute role of purveyor of ready-made confrontational soundbites to the TV networks, into a cooler, longer (half-hour), once-weekly session that actually adds to the sum of political knowledge.

Some questions would be notified in advance, to encourage more informative replies, the Opposition leader wouldretain the ability to ask impromptu searching questions on topics of the day. "There needs to be an acceptance that questions should genuinely hold ministers to account and elicit information."

He points out that at present most of the questions put to government ministers by their own side, especially at Prime Minister's Question Time, are actually about the Opposition. "It's not that you are not going to be able to ask hard questions, but there is all the difference between hard questioning and personally abusive exchanges," he says.

In other words a changed system won't necessarily give a prime minister an easier ride; rather, a more publicly edifying one. In this respect, Mr Blair is going much further than the Commons Select Committee on Procedure's current proposals for reform of Question Time.

An important side-effect is that, as the first prime minister likely to benefit from a new system, Mr Blair will still be able to use Question Time as a lever over ministerial departments: if he is to be put on the spot every week, he can justly demand that they keep him fully briefed on what they are up to.

So what about local councils? He is passionate when he says he is a "big believer" in the revival of local government, "which at its best is highly effective and highly imaginative".

The stripping of councils' responsibilities has "tragically" put many people off even considering becoming councillors. But Mr Blair is clearly warming to a proposal that, he believes, could inject real life into local government although it may annoy many councillors. This is the notion of directly elected mayors. It is, he says, referring explicitly to President Chirac's background as Mayor of Paris and the importance of big city mayors in the United States, "essential that you have people of high calibre in all parts of the political firmament".

And this is very much part of Mr Blair's pitch: "I'm very worried about the calibre of people going into every level of politics. It's not surprising people go off politics. A large majority of people, Labour and Tory, come into politics for good and decent motives. But the process is harming the way that politics develops."

This emphasis on political change is of a piece with what Mr Blair increasingly argues differentiates him from one-nation Tories, as well as those on the new right. Although there may be some overlap in ideas, Labour, he maintains, has given the political centre a "new ideology", and stands for transformation and renewal; while one-nation Conservatives - however commendably - are about conserving in all spheres, from the welfare state to the political process.

Each Sunday evening, virtually the whole Labour Party is tuning into The Wilderness Years, BBC2's series on the party's long march back to electability. Mr Blair believes this series will, for most party members, help to validate the changes made under his leadership. But he is characteristically wary of what he thinks may be the conclusion to the series: "If the final thesis is, as I expect it will be, that we've betrayed everything for power, that's intellectually very sloppy." And as he flew back from Vienna last night, he seemed supremely confident of proving it wrong.