LEADING ARTICLE: Take the long view, Tony

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is deeply committed to "modernisation". But is he serious about reforming the way we are governed? Already the proposed regional assemblies have been dropped. Rumour has it that the status of the Freedom of Information Act is now unclear, likewise commitment to change to the House of Lords. Is reform of the electoral system still on the agenda?

In October, the Labour conference will probably debate the pledge to call a referendum on proportional representation (PR). Supporters of the current system intend to see this commitment ditched. And in the past few days it has become clear that Mr Blair will not oppose them. Instead, he will maintain a rather unleaderly neutrality. Now, two big unions previously in favour of a referendum - Unison and the GMB - are likely to vote against it. So, in the absence of personal support from the Labour leader, the electoral reform commitment is likely to be thrown out.

Everyone in Westminster knows that Mr Blair will be happy to see this happen. He does not want to be identified with the process of abandonment, in order not to give ammunition to those who say he is backtracking on his fine words about pluralism and democracy. But he is against a referendum for political reasons. If, as Prime Minister, he supports a "no" vote on electoral reform and the referendum says "yes", it will represent a defeat. If the referendum favours the status quo, it will look as though he has wasted precious government time just to buy Liberal support. And, of course, a referendum would lead to a very public split in the party and also perhaps the Cabinet. Robin Cook strongly favours PR. John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Jack Straw are dead against.

Support for PR within the Labour Party has waned. Labour enthusiasm for electoral reform arose out of a minority belief in active democracy, but gained support because of simple despair. In the Eighties, desperate to get the Tories out and afraid that this would be impossible under the first-past-the-post system, many in the Labour Party looked to PR. Not any more. The Labour tribe is now confident of ousting its Tory enemies with a traditional weapon: the first-past-the-post system.

So the political calculation is that PR is not in the interests of a future Labour government. But this is political short-termism. The awful truth is that in the 50 years since the war, there have been only 10 years in which Labour enjoyed power with an adequate majority. The Tories have ruled the roost for 33 years, usually with much less than 50 per cent of the vote. This is the long-term pattern. The voting system has helped to entrench the elective dictatorship of a whipped majority party - and has rendered the voting preferences of millions meaningless in the process.

The problem is that constitutional reform entails giving up power. Oppositions tend to like it more than governments - once they are in power they are not so keen. But true modernisers should take the long-term view. The least New Labour can do is to stand by the commitment to call a referendum, to give people the choice on PR and put meat on the bones of the new Clause IV commitment to "open democracy". Mr Blair should show that his commitment to the modernisation of our political process goes beyond internal Labour Party reform.