Comrades! Fellow travellers! Allow me to draw your attention to a little bit of socialist esoterica, that might not be so esoteric after all.
“Clause IV” doesn’t sound like a very inspiring subject. It sounds like a boring rulebook paragraph on the correct way of taking minutes as a committee session. However this innocuous passage from the Labour Party constitution may well be at the heart of the great rift that runs down centre left politics in Britain. I believe that to understand Clause IV is to understand the intellectual and emotional battle at the heart of Labour.
Clause IV dates back to the founding era of The Labour Party, setting out and defining it’s mission. When you signed up as a £3 supporter last year, and ticked the box that said that you “supported the aims and values of the Labour Party”, Clause IV was more or less what you were agreeing to. It’s actually printed on the back of your membership card – whip it out and take look:
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Especially the bit saying we’re a democratic socialist party. On the other hand, what isn’t apparent to the new, millennial leftists is that this simple paragraph only appeared in its current form in 1995, and is the result of decades of ideological conflict. But why should such a seemingly agreeable statement be a cause for such strife?
The current text was put in place by the (then) brand new Blair regime, which was totally convinced that Labour could never again win power if the public perceived them as being bound to their outdated, 19th century socialist mission. Here’s the original text, which first appeared in the 1918 constitution and endured for the better part of 80 years:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
As you can see, it totally commits the party to a more structural and radical task. It allows not one single shred of room for big capitalism to reap the rewards of the labour of the many. It is clear, it is precise and it is unequivocal. It is also anathema to the tendency in the party who are now known as “Blairites” (who actually represent a tradition that dates back much further).
They’ve long argued that Labour could pursue socialism by reaping the rewards of capitalism in order to nurture well developed and comprehensive public services.They argued that Labour was destined to make itself useless as a serious and pragmatic party of government if it remained constitutionally tied to Clause IV. In their mind, if leftists were given the choice between helping the working classes to a better life or pursuing a philosophical and ideological wild goose chase, they would choose the latter.
On the other hand the old Labour Left – the tradition to which, by 2015, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were two of the last surviving adherents – have long argued that the disposal of the “real” Clause IV was what opened the door for big money and corperatism to take over the Labour Party.
Because the party was no longer committed to nationalising their business interests, many large donors flocked to Blair’s New Labour, injecting it with a flow of cash and credibility, which it was badly lacking after Thatcher’s emasculation of the great Trade Unions – but it also put power and influence straight into the hands of bosses, powerful individuals and big business – the very people Labour was founded to wrest power AWAY from.
Many believe that there is a moral case to be made for common and/or cooperative ownership of almost any essential commodity and that if a structure or organisation is essential to the well being of society, no one individual or company should be allowed to profiteer from it. Most agree this holds true for the NHS, schools, the BBC and even national assets like the great museums, but should it be further applied to the railways, the energy companies, communications grid and beyond? Opponents of this position argue that if, in pursuing a utopian dream you render society stagnant and unprosperous, chasing off wealth creators and reducing your means to fund public services (and win elections!), you are failing in your socialist mission despite your “ideological purity”.
The truth is that unless you are a Year Zero Maoist or a raging Thatcherite, there is room for a happy balance between the two. The sad fallout of the Blair years was the destruction of one tradition in favour of the other, the unhappy backlash of which we saw in the mass rebellion from the grassroots in their election of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour Members began to see the addition of “democratic socialist” to Clause IV not as a promise, but a platitude. A slow melting away of faith in Labour’s integrity turned into a landslide.
Moderates argue that the change to Clause IV was all that stopped the party from fading away from relevance forever, whereas leftists argue that we were destined for government by 1997 regardless, and the change was the greatest betrayal of principle in the Party’s history. This dichotomy has always existed in the soul of Labour, a wound that opens every time the Party are out of government. Labour’s success depends upon its ability to reconcile this internal stress and by its collective endeavour, win government again.