Look closely and you will see the snail moving

NOW, here is a question: is John Smith the snail? Not any snail, I mean the snail described by Gunter Grass, the great moustachioed German novelist. His snail symbolises slow, real, political progress: 'It seldom wins and then by the skin of its teeth. It crawls, it goes into hiding but keeps on, putting down its quickly drying track on the historical landscape. . . .'

In From the Diary of a Snail, based on Willy Brandt's 1969 general election campaign, Grass contrasts the snail's progress with revolutionary leaps forward, which always end in tears. The snail's doggedness is unheroic: 'I am a Social Democrat because to my mind socialism is worthless without democracy and because an unsocial democracy is no democracy at all. . . . Nothing to cheer about. . . . I expect only partial achievements.'

The case for Smith-as-snail is that he moves so slowly, but moves. No great frog-leaps for him. He even has a shell, two flights of stairs up from the main Labour leadership's office, where he retreats. Express great interest in something he's said and he will stare at you with deep suspicion. He gives the impression of

a man who cannot see an expectation without lowering it. Yet, take your eye

off him and there are changes: union links; a bill of rights; tax policy . . .

Take the most sensitive issue of all, which is proportional representation and Lib-Labbery. Nothing doing there. When the Labour candidate for Newbury in the last general election suggested recently that Labour should not put up candidate in the coming by-election so as not to jeopardise the chances of the Liberal Democrat, Mr Smith was quick to squash the idea. Not putting up a candidate would be exciting, news-grabbing - downright shameless behaviour.

And yet . . . if you look hard enough, for long enough, you might get the impression that the two opposition parties were just a little nearer than you realised. A few signs, insignificant to all but inveterate snail-watchers. First, there is the presence of David Marquand on Labour's Social Justice Commission. This is a man who, despite his low public profile, remains quite close to the Liberal Democrat leadership. Second, there is the dilemma of anti-PR people on Labour's Plant Commission on voting reform. They tried to get a clear signal from the leader, so that they could stop any nonsense before the commission reports. They phoned and they phoned, and they failed. They realised - horror] - that Mr Smith actually would allow the commission to recommend voting reform.

He will leave it up to the party conference in October to decide how to proceed. Nor are there any signs - yet - of Mr Smith arm-twisting to kill off PR there. Will Labour commit itself to voting reform for Westminster before the next election? No. But something funny is going on. Perhaps the party will commit itself to a referendum on the issue. Anyway, the thing is moving forward.

There is a precedent. Before the election, Mr Smith's close buddy Donald Dewar got the Labour Party in Scotland inside a cross-party Constitutional Convention and committed to some form of PR for a Scottish parliament. These were both controversial, but Mr Dewar downplayed any suggestion that anything was happening. He tsk-tsk'd, shook his head, promised there was nothing to get worked up about. Then, when we were all bored and looking the other way, it happened.

A third small sign. The friendship between Mr Smith, Mr Dewar and leading Scottish Liberal Democrats such as Menzies Campbell and Sir David Steel remains as cordial as ever. Mr Smith has made no move, public or private, to rebuke high-profile enthusiasts for a Lib- Lab deal such as Calum Macdonald, the Western Isles MP.

Then, finally, an equally small matter, which we could refer to as the Open Hand Gang affair. In January, with Baroness Williams back in London to celebrate her peerage, 20 or so former Labour people who had followed her into the SDP enjoyed a private dinner party. Three-quarters of them agreed that Mr Smith's Labour Party was one they could do business with. They resolved to try the open hand of friendship and facilitate talks.

What does all this amount to? It certainly doesn't mean a pre-election Labour and Liberal Democrat electoral pact. At local level there are too many partisans of both parties who hate the other for people to stand down. But it would not be surprising if Labour went into the next election keen enough on the market and the individual to make it sound attractive to Liberal Democrat voters. Nor would it be surprising if John Smith and Paddy Ashdown declined to savage each other ahead of such an election.

No deal, though: any shift in voting patterns to oust Conservatives would be negotiated inside the minds of individual voters, as they drew conclusions from what wasn't said. Internalised this way, there would be nothing for Tories to criticise as cynical or desperate. Is this Mr Smith's plan? He would look deeply reproving if you mentioned it.

He has not convinced a sizeable group inside the party that he has any grand plan. Today, Bryan Gould will launch his 'Full Employment Forum' - not a dissident group but definitely an intellectual frog-leapers' club, and a rebuke to snails everywhere. Some Shadow Cabinet people will be watching sympathetically to see how much support he musters.

I still say keep your eye on that gastropod. Mr Smith is moving very slowly, but he's on the road to somewhere. It would not be wholly surprising, would it, if Mr Snail had a long-term route map hidden in his shell?