Now for the year when the lull breaks

If the Lib Dems and Labour can take a risk on electoral reform, the turgid mood of 1995 will start to lift; The main parties have been waiting all year: Labour for office, Tories for recovery; It is possible the Reaper will finish off Major, but we would be unwise to expect it

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Leafing through the cuttings, reminiscing with wine-enlightenedfriends, one's overwhelming impression of 1995 is of a year of frustration and blockage in politics. There has been plenty of surface flash and glitter, but little forward thrust.

The year's emblematic event was surely the summer drama of John Major's resignation. At the time it seemed to be a lapel-grabbing, vintage tale, signifying quite a bit. His great gamble would transform his own position and that of his party. But ... it didn't. Rarely has such cliff-hanging theatre produced such a tedious result.

The Prime Minister has not enjoyed the enhanced authority he sought; the pre-Christmas fisheries rebellion was not a large event, but it reminded us of the underlying problem. The Conservatives have wallowed so far behind Labour in the polls that the polls have ceased to make news. The Budget was sensible, grey, underwhelming. The business of the Commons, from the Nolan report to minor European revolts, interested political obsessives but not the Plain People of these islands.

It had seemed equally clear that Tony Blair's victory in the Labour leadership contest last year was bound to produce either a new bout of ideological conflict or a sparkling new agenda. And again, what was "clear" never happened.

The internal argument about Clause IV was over before it started, ramming home how dominant Blair is. Since then Labour has lurked behind its leader's popularity while the Shadow Cabinet has - let us put this politely - avoided over-stimulating the public with bold initiatives.

The truth is that both of the main parties have been waiting all year. Labour is waiting for office, meeting industrialists, media tycoons and policy wonks; blocking in diaries with its election strategy. And the Conservatives are loitering about for signs of a recovery that people notice. For them the grimmest thought is that this may be as good as it's going to get.

Labour, in short, has been too far ahead to be bold, while the Conservatives have been too far behind to be rough. Had all the politicians taken a year out in the Bahamas, most people would barely have noticed. The big stories were resolutely unpolitical - drought, health scares, various murderers. The greatest political coup came from the Princess of Wales.

It is tempting to argue that politics is losing its grip on the popular imagination because politicians can do so much less than they once promised. The power of global markets and compelling media images swamps the old Westminster game.

On that reading, Britain's sceptical attitude to the main parties is grown-up. Unlike some countries, we are not turning to extremists - merely to royal soap opera and the sports pages.

The only unequivocally good story of the year, the Irish peace, could be seen as the victory of secular market-place values over politics - a lovely, civilian, decision-free lull. John Major has done nothing bold to secure a settlement; and despite ominous warnings, his passivity has not had disastrous consequences. It has been more waiting, but a kind of waiting one wishes endless.

This quietism, though, cannot last through 1996. The lull will break. Away from the headlines the momentum for change is detectable everywhere.

Much has been written, in somewhat morbid tones, about the likelihood of more Conservative MPs dying and the Government losing its majority. Resignations, bankruptcies and even floor-crossings cannot be ruled out. Who knows what the wretched David Ashby's new year will mean for him? At any rate, Conservative Central Office is prudently planning for the possibility of an election in about nine months' time.

But there is a rule, almost as inexorable as death, which is that governments do not go to the country early if they believe they will lose. They ignore inconvenient defeats. They extend recesses. They do any damn thing but resign. It is possible that the Reaper will finish off the Major administration in 1996. But we would be very unwise to expect it.

What is likelier is yet another bout of Tory plotting directed at the Prime Minister. There are plenty on the right of the party who will say, lean forefingers tapping twitching noses, that Major did a deal with Michael Heseltine in the summer and if routed again in the local elections will stand down.

By then the party will have become used to Heseltine as his deputy and the right will fail to stop him. In due course Hezza will hand over to Chris Patten, the left's lost leader, who by then will have returned as MP for, say, Kensington and Chelsea. So the conspiracy theory goes. I think it tells us nothing much except that the Conservative Party finds it easier to expend its imagination on life after Major than to imagine his next five years of achievement.

But 1996 will certainly bring us the general election campaign, even if not the election itself. And if the Opposition intends to transform Britain, its leading figures have some serious decisions to make. Above all, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown have to decide what sort of relationship they want their parties to have, whether a closer alliance could propel the Conservatives out for longer than the four or five years that is normal before they return to their equally normal function, holding office.

This is a big decision because it marks the place where politics as normal breaks down and something new emerges. Thus far, even Labour reformers have tended to follow the Conservatives in regarding Liberal Democrats as a fringe group, to be mocked for their high-mindedness and dealt with, if at all, only as a last resort.

What the Lib Dems could offer Labour is a bigger chance of power this time and the break-up of the Conservative hegemony over a longer period. Twenty seats or so is a significant block in what may yet be a very close election. The parties are already similar in their analysis of Europe, Scottish and Welsh devolution, local government, education and reform of the Commons. A group called Linc, which represents MPs and activists committed to Lib-Lab conversation, has produced a delightfully subversive pamphlet describing the similarities.

These parties could, in theory, commit themselves to work together to reform those parts of the system, as they did in Scotland. They could make the sort of unsectarian declaration of intent British politics has not seen since the first European campaigns. This would, I guess, have a big impact on the public mood of cynicism. It would be the worst thing that had happened to the Major administration since Black Wednesday.

Why isn't it rumbling ahead? The answer has nothing to do with rows over who would fight what constituency, since virtually no one is now calling for an electoral deal. It is much more to do with the Labour leadership's lack of interest in electoral reform. Tony Blair has offered a referendum on it, but given the impression that he would campaign for the status quo. This would, of course, scupper the Lib Dems and make it likelier that, if a Blair administration stumbled four years in, the Conservatives would come back as usual.

If Blair moves on voting reform in the year ahead, then politics generally will accelerate and start to change shape. Pluralism will cease to be a gimmick word among the pamphlet-writing classes, and will become imaginable to voters generally. The coming election will look ever more clearly like the watershed it surely is. If the Liberal Democrats and new Labour retreat into knee-jerk mutual mockery and fail to take these kinds of risk, on the other hand, the turgid mood of 1995 will be slow to lift.

This is a strange moment. It has not been a glorious year for politics. It has been almost as if everyone acknowledged that things could not carry on this way, and that some break with the slow, grey trudge of recent years was needed; yet no one was able to make it happen. We seem fated to act out, report and hear the same now-tedious rebellions, the same bland policy announcements, the same parliamentary bickering ... and across the land rolls the same slow national yawn.

As I raise an unsteady glass to the year ahead, I feel sure that the waiting will come to an end in 1996, at least with a political fight that electrifies us all. With thanks to all readers - may you drink deeply to that.

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