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Clause 4

COMMENTARY
Clause 4
Ted Benton

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C o m e on lads – we all prefer nice things to nasty’: this desperate moral appeal,
delivered above the chaotic mania of classroom rebellion, was the habitual resort
of an old schoolmaster of mine. For those of us close enough to hear, it evoked

peals of derisive laughter. Of course, I feel guilty about it now. But the story is really quite
tragic. Had ‘Foddy’ been born into a later generation he might have reached high office perhaps become a Labour Party leader, even drafted a new constitution for it. For catch-all,
tautological emptiness, Blair’s replacement for the Party’s notorious ‘clause 4’ comes close to
Foddy’s entry into the competition, but it loses out disastrously on the test of conciseness.

There has been some derisive laughter, of course, off stage left, and even from the form
prefects, but it has been timid, half suppressed laughter, with a tinge of palpable nervousness:

perhaps this moment symbolizes the end of serious politics, the final triumph of the media
soundbite. But this is to recognize that the battle over clause 4 was just one battle in a longdrawn-out war, the focus of which has indeed been the nature and direction of the Labour
Party, but whose strategic targets are much more ambitious. A much earlier battle, fought on
exactly the same terrain – Gaitskell’s attack on clause 4 – resulted in ignominious defeat for the
revisionists. Thirty-five years later, Blair was able to inflict a crushing defeat on the Left.

What, exactly, has changed? Has capital become more benign? Have reforming Labour
governments shown that poverty, ecological destruction, crime, mass unemployment, racism,
the oppression of women, and exploitation at work can all be tackled successfully without
taking on the power of private capital?

In fact, such evidence as we have about public opinion suggests massive opposition to
further privatizations, and deep disquiet about the abuses of power, job losses, price rises,
losses of public services, ecological damage and other widely understood costs of past
privatizations. At the same time, the disintegration of the National Health Service under the
weight of underfunding and commercialization is almost universally condemned. The perfect
time, one might have thought, for Labour to press home the socialist case for common
ownership.

Of course, no one seriously expected the Labour leadership to do this. The reasons are not
hard to find. The Labour Party is not the party it was in Gaitskell’s day, and the external
context in which this new battle for the ‘heart and soul’ of the Party was fought is profoundly
different. The democratic reforms to the Party constitution which were won in the late 1970s,
together with a newly radicalized trade-union and popular base, led to a crisis in the leadership
of the Party at the end of that decade. Portrayed as a crisis of governability, of the authority of
the state itself, that moment set the terms of, and provided the conditions for, the project of
Thatcher and the ‘new’ Right. Since that time each Labour leader has been required by a media
consensus to demonstrate the will and the nerve to dominate both the Party and the wider
movement – to demonstrate that any future Labour government would ‘stand up to the unions’

and exclude from influence the radical voices in its ranks. Kinnock complied with campaigns
of vilification against the ‘entrist’ left in the Party, while Smith continued the task of
disassociating the party from the trade -union movement. So far had these leaders gone, in fact,
that Blair was left with only what the Guardian (11 March 1995) referred to as the ‘symbolic

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Radical Philosophy 72 (July/August 1995)

gesture’ of an attack on clause 4 to demonstrate his political manhood. The central media
concern with the whole debate has, indeed, been the question of Blair’ s capacity to exert his
authority over the Party – an interesting criterion of success, in a form of democracy which
legitimates itself in terms of the role of political parties as representatives of their members and
supporters.

Party activists are now less likely to live or work in a favourable environment, and less
likely to feel that they can influence the direction of the Party at nat’ionallevel. The great
majority have, indeed, left the Party altogether. In this setting, it is remarkable how strong the
internal resistance to the leadership onslaught was. It is widely assumed that the new wording
for clause 4 includes some elements of compromise aimed at the Left, and the leadership was
forced to divert very considerable energy and resources to campaigning against a sizable
section of their own membership.

A sense of purpose
Well, so much for the context. What about clause 4 itself? Throughout the campaign it was
hard to come by a serious argument for change. There were plenty of manifestly weak or banal
ones. For some advocates of change, the clause was an election-loser. In twenty-odd years of
campaigning for Labour, I never heard it mentioned once. Almost invariably the clause was
denounced as a commitment to wholesale ‘nationalization’. Of course, the clause doesn’t
mention nationalization. The commitment is to common ownership, and to ‘the best obtainable
system of popular administration’: a far cry from the practice of the actual nationalized
industries.

By far the most influential element in the case for reform has been the identification of
ditching the clause with the mission to ‘modernize’ the Party: one ‘grand narrative’ that seems
to have lost none of its appeal. In this, as in so many other areas, the leadership have simply
adopted the Thatcherite inversions of the political discourse of the Left. Socialism is no longer
a vision of the future good society, but a relic of past delusions. Perhaps a little closer to the
mark was Blair’s own admission, in his speech to the Scottish Labour conference, that the
clause should be dropped simply because ‘we’ do not believe in it. The problem with-this is
that, while Labour governments have shown little inclination to implement the clause, a
significant proportion of the Party membership has been reluctant to say goodbye to its
socialist aspiration. Even the Guardian, a consistent Blair-supporter, had to concede (leader, 11
March) that Blair’s victory owed more to rank-and-file fear of rocking the electoral boat than
to genuine conviction.

But it would be wrong to say that there were no good arguments on the side of reform.

These came out more strongly as the ‘soft’ Left slowly joined the leadership bandwagon. The
clause can be damned for its glaring omissions. There is no mention of the environment, of
women’s rights, nor of the scourges of racism and bigotry. Although the old clause does
commit the Party to ‘promote the political, social and economic emancipation of the people’,
this is then qualified by a more specific commitment to those ‘who depend directly upon their
own exertions by hand or by brain’. Similarly, the key section 4 of the old clause 4 sets out the
purpose of ‘common ownership’ in terms of redistribution of the product to the said ‘workers
by hand and by brain’. There are at least two strong objections to this as a statement of socialist
aims. The first is that it appears to give priority to the needs of waged or salaried workers over
those who, whatever their social contribution, as parents, carers, citizens, or whatever their
condition of life, should be included within the universalistic values of any socialism worthy of
the name.

The second objection is that it suggests that the main purpose of common ownership is
distributive justice. This is, indeed, an important socialist aim, but it is not the only one, nor,
indeed, the most important. The values asserted in the Blair version of clause 4 include an ideal
of community in which people ‘live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and
respect’. The new text also advocates the taking of decisions ‘by the communities they affect’ ,
and includes a new commitment to environmental protection and enhancement. These
commitments do, indeed, capture much of the core value-content of the socialist tradition.

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Where the old clause 4 was inadequate was in its failure to spell out the arguments which link
each of these values with common ownership. In the end, what is definitive of socialism is not
so much its value-commitments (these are almost universally shared), as its diagnosis that they
cannot be realized in an economic system governed by market forces and the rate of profit.

But, whatever its failings, the old clause 4 had one great strength: it was an eloquent and
unequivocal statement that Labour was about the creation of a radically new order of societya socialist society, in which social wealth would be in the hands of the people, and its use
governed by democratic institutions (‘popular administration and control’). It is true that
Labour governments rarely, if ever, took this vision seriously, and it may also be that for
activists on the left to have believed that one day they might was a delusion. But, equally, no
one should be in any doubt about the profound social importance of symbols. For hundreds of
thousands of Labour activists the clause has been a binding and mobilizing force – the guiding
vision and sense of purpose which motivated years of sacrifice and kept them going through all
the defeats and betrayals. The new clause has no such unifying power. Blair and his allies may
well turn out to have won a hollow victory.

Yet, important as they are, symbols are not enough. To be effective, a socialist vision
has to be translated into popular and practicable policies and strategies. A merely defensive,
‘traditionalist’ response to the ‘modernizers’ will be self-defeating. It is important, here, to
distinguish the critical, diagnostic side of the socialist project from its creative, transformative
side. We live in a world dominated by the power of unregulated, globalizing capital: an
economic form which sows despair, division, sickness, death, poverty and destruction
wherever it takes hold. It now possesses the technical power to convert the very bases of life
itself into the raw materials of its own ruthless self-expansion. Serious analysis of the causes of
recurrent famine, the global distribution of environmental pollution, deforestation, endemic
poverty and socio-cultural fragmentation cannot escape the key role of an economic system out
of control, and answerable to no one. Even when, as in some Western countries since World
War II, the bleak negativity of modern capitalism has been offset by ameliorative reform, this
has rested on two (vulnerable) preconditions: economic imperialism, and the threat of
socialism. The critical, diagnostic side of the socialist case against capital is well-nigh
unanswerable.

So, there is a paradox. As the case against capital becomes ever more powerful and
urgent, socialism is at its lowest ebb for a century or more. The challenge for socialists is to
create and communicate a feasible alternative. If common ownership does not mean
nationalization and centralized economic direction, what does it mean? Can economic
decision-making be decentralized and democratized without sacrificing a wider social interest?

Can the tyranny of market forces be overcome without losing the benefits of market exchange?

How do we define ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’ in a world of global interdependencies and
dislocations? How can liberty be reconciled with the strengthening of community, when
community is so often identified with homogeneity, closure and bigotry? How can local action
be effective in a world of global forces?

These are all deep and difficult questions. They are all questions which are presumed
solved without even being posed in the bland glosses of the new clause 4. But to come up with
answers to these and many other questions is the challenge which must be faced by a diverse
and imaginative movement of the Left if we are to have a serious alternative to the seductive
smile of Tony Blair. The sheer scale of Blair’ s victory is a harsh reminder, if any were needed,
that Labour is no longer the focus of activity for the Left which it once was. The cutting edge
of radical politics is now in the social movements and ‘single issue’ campaigns, where mistrust
of the orthodox political parties is well-nigh universal. Whether a new force to the left in
British political life can be forged from these roots remains to be seen. If it cannot, we face the
bleak prospect of a political system and culture in which the critical voice of the Left is no
longer heard.

I have benefited greatly from discussions with friends in the Red-Green Study Group and the
UK editorial group of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism – though the views expressed
above are my personal ones.

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